Wednesday, February 16, 2000

County bears main blame in stadium fiasco

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Who crowned Tom Neyer king?

        The Hamilton County commissioner sounded positively regal and totally dismissive in his recent response to cost overruns at Paul Brown Stadium.

        After an audit revealed $35 million to $45 million has been added to the already bloated stadium price tag, King Tom told the people of Hamilton County:

        “Now is not the time to start pointing fingers.”

        I couldn't disagree more.

        I have three digits aimed right at Hamilton County's Commissioners: Bob Bedinghaus, John Dowlin and King Tom.

        The commissioners are ultimately responsible for the stadium's rush job. The county made a deal with Mike Brown and the Bengals. If the football team's new home isn't ready on time, the county agreed to pay $2 million for every preseason game and $4 million for every regular-season game the Bengals can't play in Paul Brown Stadium. That set the stage for the stadium project to be turned into a rush job.

        Commissioner Neyer should know better. As the auditors discovered, haste made waste.

        There's plenty of blame to go around: Sloppy record-keeping. Missing paperwork. Changes in construction with no clear idea of who was responsible or even if the extra work was necessary.

        We could point at the project manager, at the design firm and, yes, at our three lordships ruling the county commission.

        One of the many things revealed by the audit is another glimpse of just how highhanded these county commissioners have become. They've forgotten the notion of government by the people. They've grown arrogant and comfortable with the idea of government by fiat, by their own edict, or, in this case, by their lack of attention.

        Who should have put a stadium authority in place from the beginning? Who should have been checking numbers and questioning rising costs?

        Anyone want to point a finger yet?

Plan and save
        In order to understand the ins and outs of big construction projects, I talked with six experts. The architects, planners and developers I contacted felt the cost overruns were high but not unexpected given the circumstances.

        “This is what happens with a rush job,” said Jim Mouhourtis, Corporex vice president for design/construction.

        Bids for the building were based on preliminary sketches. Design changes had to take place during construction, wasting time, materials and money.

        The waste could have been avoided and cost overruns greatly reduced, the experts told me, by taking the time to solicit bids with finished drawings and concrete plans. When plans are set, a timetable is established, a chain of command is set up. That's called accountability.

        However, preliminary plans could well have been used. But in the construction business that's a “design-build plan,” which, Jim Mouhourtis said, calls for close teamwork among “contractors, designers, architects. If there's a problem, everyone works on the solution. Finger-pointing is not left to the owner, who is the least qualified, to determine who's right or wrong.”

Good government
        Cost overruns at Paul Brown Stadium are the people's business, and therefore our elected officials' business. They seem to have forgotten that.

        County funds — tax money — will likely foot the bill for the $35 million or more destined to be tacked onto a stadium whose “guaranteed maximum price” was $287 million.

        Hamilton County deserves better service from its commissioners.

        Voters elected them to improve the county's quality of life, to make a difference. The commissioners are trying to do that with two new stadiums. Good for them.

        But the commissioners are not very exacting in their work. When they don't pay attention, it costs us money, lots of money.

        Good government is accountable.

        When millions of public dollars now have to be spent because of a rush job, I think it is a perfect time to point fingers. And in Hamilton County, you can start with just three.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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