Saturday, January 20, 2018

Questions continue over firm contracted with the county

Confusion, controversy and questions continue at the Stillwater County Courthouse over the commissioners’ continued relationship with a Billings architecture firm hired to study a proposed courthouse construction project.
The controversy was stirred this week by a refusal to provide an outside evaluation of the firm’s work done on a stalled project in Lame Deer, and a recent denial by the Lame Deer school superintendent of statements made previously to the Stillwater County News.
The company, Spectrum Group Architects of Billings, was hired three years ago by the Stillwater County Commissioners to conduct what ended up being two feasibility studies regarding possible options for dealing with an aging and over-crowded courthouse. The proposals and options have caused controversy in and out of the courthouse.
In a story published Feb. 26, the News reported the breakdown of a relationship with Spectrum on a multi-million dollar project started for the Lame Deer School district. Seeking comment from the district about an independent evaluation conducted after the project was terminated, the paper received an email Jan. 22 from Superintendent Bill Parker which read, in part:
“Our settlement agreement with Spectrum netted us slightly over $300,000 which is public record. Also, we were required to be nice in terms of what we can say about the numerous problems incurred in the process.”
Meanwhile, at a county commission meeting two weeks ago, commissioners announced Spectrum had informed them via email of Lame Deer’s request for a correction. Spectrum provided the commissioners with the letter Lame Deer sent to the News.
In that letter Parker denies having made the statements in the email.
Independent evaluation
The controversy was fired further this week by Spectrum denying a request from Commissioner Gerald Dell to provide a copy of the independent evaluation done for Lame Deer by the Billings architecture firm of High Plains Architects. High Plains was hired by the school district to review the work done by Spectrum.
In a letter to commissioners received this week, Spectrum Architect Kathleen Armstrong cites a confidentiality clause in their settlement with the school district, as justification for denying the commissioners a copy of the evaluation report.
“Spectrum Group was not contacted by the school district, or the third party assessor, for comment at any time either during, or after, that evaluation. Spectrum’s silence with respect to the report ought not be construed as agreement with its findings, but as adherence to the conditions of the Settlement Agreement. This document is not ours, so we therefore cannot release it.
We hope you understand that Spectrum Group Architects does not want to be in the position of violating that settlement contract,” Armstrong wrote in the letter.
The News obtained the evaluation last month after requesting it from High Plains Architects, which then contacted Lame Deer. It was determined that because the evaluation had been presented to the school board it was a public document, and given to the News.
The High Plains evaluation found the following:
“Spectrum Group Architects was the architect for Phase 1. Its design was unremarkable and does not evidence sustainable design strategies that would benefit both the district and the students and teachers. This design was presented in a set of contract documents that is not clear, correct, or well-coordinated. In addition, Spectrum charged the school district considerably higher fees for the Space Planning Phase and Basic Services than industry standard. It then charged for a number of Additional Services, many of which were unwarranted.”
Also listed in this evaluation was $336,000 “excessive design fees” as well as problems including roof overhangs that dump snow into doorways and leaks in ceiling tiles.
History
The studies Spectrum conducted for Stillwater County took nearly three years to complete at a cost of approximately $70,000.
A total of five options were developed ranging in cost from approximately $6 million to $17 million. The first study looked solely at remodeling the old hospital, although it was later determined that building will not accommodate all the county offices. The other four options involve combinations of remodeling the old hospital and the current courthouse as well as new construction.
The options were presented in January in three public meetings held in Absarokee, Columbus and Park City. Spectrum’s handouts changed for each meeting due to errors discovered with an estimated mill levy impact analysis as well as an extra $550,500 found in two categories by a citizen who attended the Columbus meeting.
Additionally, a six page “Stillwater Site Comparisons” document was made available at the Columbus and Park City meetings but not in Absarokee.
Stillwater County Undersheriff Chip Kem recently submitted a letter to the commissioners regarding the options and stated that whatever option is decided upon, he cannot give his support if the county keeps using Spectrum. Kem also encouraged the commissioners to obtain the High Plains evaluation, as he had.
Commissioners did not respond Wednesday by press time to questions about if they plan to pursue other avenues to obtain the evaluation.

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