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Davich: Lessons learned from jail project fiasco

Leonard Dianne RichardsWheatfield have concerns over inflated cost Jasper County Jail. | Jerry Davich/Sun-Times Media

Leonard and Dianne Richardson of Wheatfield have concerns over the inflated cost of the Jasper County Jail. | Jerry Davich/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 29, 2014 6:07AM



Kendall Culp was forthright, candid and informative in regard to the Jasper County Jail, which has surely been a headache for him for several years now.

In response to my previous column on the ill-designed jail, which was built in 2007, the long-time Jasper County Commissioner admitted that “bad advice” led to its initial problems. Specifically, bad advice for its misguided electrical heating system, which caused ridiculously high utility bills, rather than a traditional gas-fired boiler system.

The Indianapolis-based engineering firm RQAW won the bid in 2007 to design the jail, which would replace the county’s overcrowded and antiquated former jail. A settlement was later reached with the firm but it didn’t stop the ridiculously high monthly utility bills, at taxpayers’ expense.

This is why county resident Leonard Richardson contacted me to complain about the jail, its inflated cost and how county officials bungled the project from day one. That’s when a special committee was formed to research the best design for the new jail, receiving “expert” guidance that has since cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“For starters, we had to pay $10 million for a jail that did not work properly,” said Richardson, of Wheatfield. “I am a concerned citizen and other citizens here need to know about this issue. It’s a classic case of mismanagement that left taxpayers paying the price and county commissioners refusing to hold anyone accountable for it.”

Accountability is one key trait we expect from our elected officials, regardless of county, issue or public office. Culp, who’s been a county commissioner since 2005, didn’t dodge his accountability for the jail project fiasco, but he also didn’t own it either.

For starters, he wasn’t on that special committee to find the best design and engineering firm. Plus, he readily admitted that county officials received misguided information and, as elected officials often do, they acted on it in good trust.

In short, they were told that monthly utility bills would be much lower than what they actually were. And, as many government boards do in such situations, they believed the Indianapolis engineering firm and its big-city cast of expert consultants.

“We felt we did our due diligence,” Culp said. “But we didn’t get the best job for our money.”

A 2012 energy auditing report by Durkin & Villalta Partners Engineering confirms this, stating in its executive summary: “The utility bills for the facility show it is using significantly more energy than a well-designed and operated jail should. Electric usage is exceedingly high.”

Richardson, whose wife, Dianne, served on the county council from 2008 to 2012, added, “The utilities, prior to fixing some of the problems, ran $250,000 per year, after the engineering firm estimated it would run between $50,000 and $70,000.”

Culp confirmed it, noting, “The firm’s estimates were nowhere close to what the actual utilities turned out to be.”

“Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. They gave us some bad advice,” he said flatly.

Due to the faulty heating/cooling system, the jail was chronically too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, and bleeding taxpayer dollars year-round.

The exact dollar figure is not readily known for all the repair jobs to date, as well as for the years of higher-than-expected utility bills. Most county residents have no idea of this overall cost and, I’m guessing, they’d rather not find out. It would be too aggravating, too embarrassing, too disappointing.

“There’s no one more disappointed than us commissioners,” said Culp, who had little choice but to fix the problem.

The county hired an attorney to find a legal resolution with the engineering firm, opting against using its performance bond to rectify the situation. Why? Again, county officials were advised to do so by their legal counsel.

“The problem with going through legal means is that everything would have stopped while the courts dealt with this issue,” Culp explained. “This wouldn’t have helped fix our problem.”

The county now uses a guaranteed saving program, sponsored through the government, to help save on utility costs. The new boiler system now has all the high-tech whistles and bells it should have had from the get go, including a remote-monitored system.

“Everything should be finally corrected in the next few weeks,” Culp said, trying to put the best positive spin on an obviously negative situation.

Are there any lessons to be learned from this ill-advised, multi-million-dollar project?

Other officials from nearby counties have watched intently from afar, Culp noted, and many have also contacted him for behind-the-scenes insights and red-flag warnings.

For the rest of us, it’s an important reminder how much it matters who we elect into office and how much power we grant them with our taxpayer dollars, thanks to watchdog citizens such as Richardson.

Motorcycle (crashes)
are everywhere

It’s hard to miss all the motorcycles on Northwest Indiana roads this summer but it’s also getting harder to miss hitting them, or so it seems.

Each week, another handful of local motorcyclists go down, sometimes to the hospital, other times to the morgue. Yes, “motorcycles are everywhere” as the familiar yellow bumper stickers claim, but too many other motorists are oblivious to them.

I’ve rode various motorcycles for 30 years and I’ve had my share of dangerously close calls with other motorists. All it takes is one brush against a vehicle, some loose gravel or a tight turn and it’s lights out for any biker.

On the flip side, too many younger, risk-taking motorcyclists are oblivious to the dangers.

“If they are not worried about themselves, they should think of all the families and friends who will be saddened and hurt for a long time, if not forever,” said one reader who alerted me to a motorcycle crash fatality last month in Lowell.

Throughout the summer, we’ll be reading stories, police blotter items and, yes, obituaries for bikers who either became intoxicated on high speeds and stupid decisions or who were victims of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t let it be you.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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