Wednesday, October 16, 2002

County seeks stadium refund


Cost overruns blamed on architects

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A letter demanding nearly $45 million in reimbursement to Hamilton County taxpayers for cost overruns during Paul Brown Stadium construction has been drafted and could be mailed to the project architect as soon as today, a county commissioner said Tuesday.

The letter was ready to be sent to Los Angeles-based NBBJ Architecture on Tuesday. But the letter was delayed after the county's Indianapolis law firm, Ice Miller, decided to refine a couple of points.

Paul Brown Stadium, built at taxpayer expense, opened in Aug. 2000 with $51 million in cost overruns. The county hired Ice Miller in December 2000 to examine who was responsible for the overruns and how much could be recovered. Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune said the implied message in the letter is that the county will file a lawsuit if it is not reimbursed for the overruns, which were largely the result of changes to hundreds of design drawings as the $451 million publicly financed stadium was being built.

“When we take this step, it will be a major one that will begin the process of protecting the county's interests and recovering taxpayer dollars concerning the stadiums and riverfront development,” Mr. Portune said. “There has been a thorough and exhaustive review of the overruns, and the letter represents the fruits of that investigation."

Hamilton County has paid Ice Miller more than $750,000 so far for its review of the overruns and legal strategies on how to recover a portion of the overruns.

Paul Becker, a principal with NBBJ, referred all questions about the overruns to firm lawyer Scott Cain, who did not return several phone messages left seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Becker has said in the past that the large number of changes on the project weren't his firm's fault. Neither Mr. Portune nor fellow Commissioner Tom Neyer would comment on why $45 million has been identified as recoverable, the particular legal strategies to go about getting that money, or why NBBJ is the lone target of the recovery effort. The county also hired a project manager for Paul Brown Stadium, in addition to the architect and construction manager.

“There have been a number of strategies and options discussed, and what our eventual path will be is as yet uncertain,” said Mr. Neyer, adding that the logic behind the strategies will be made public when “the public's interest is not disserved by doing so."

The prosecutor's office has kept discussions between Ice Miller and the county private. But County Administrator David Krings began compiling information Tuesday for a news release, revealing the existence of the letter.

Hamilton County commissioners found out the stadium project was headed for red ink in August 1999. The commission - at that time made up of Mr. Neyer, John Dowlin and stadium champion Bob Bedinghaus - was briefed about the problems in closed-door executive sessions, keeping the overruns secret from the public for more than six months.

In February 2000, commissioners made the overruns public through a PricewaterhouseCoopers audit, which blamed everyone associated with the construction.

In the fall of 2000, and shortly after the stadium opened, Mr. Portune defeated Mr. Bedinghaus and became the first Democrat in a generation to win a seat on the commission. His campaign was centered on the overruns and the secrecy with which the commission handled the problem. Mr. Portune has been an advocate of trying to get the Bengals to renegotiate the lease signed by the previous board of commissioners and argued against paying the overruns until a court determines who is to blame.

Mr. Neyer and Mr. Dowlin voted in favor of paying the overruns and trying to recover the money later.

E-mail dklepal@enquirer.com



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