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Watching a hole in the ground fill with money

Just so you understand, I’m not accusing anybody of anything. But I’m peering through my office window at eight guys looking at a hole in the ground on the taxpayers’ dime.

And now, 12 minutes later, I’m looking at four guys watching a dump truck move slowly through the construction site for the new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters. One of the four guys has his arms crossed, which is never a good sign on a public works project.

It’s true the vast majority on the crew were working up a sweat building what will eventually be Parker Center’s replacement, but if they weren’t, I’d be the first to know. I couldn’t have a better seat from which to keep an eye on this project.

And believe me, someone needs to be watching.

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The city initially estimated that the new 11-story cop shop would cost $177 million and then adjusted that to $200 million, but they’re still moving dirt around and the price is up to $231 million. Add the planned parking facility a block away and add furnishings, and the original estimate for the whole project was $302 million, but that was increased to a projected $340 million. Then, in September, the City Council approved an increase to $396.8 million and was warned by city staff that the tab could be $420 million before long.

The building’s being constructed by Tutor-Saliba, a contractor with a long history of high-profile disputes with public agencies. Los Angeles-based Tutor-Saliba and several partners agreed last year to pay $19 million to settle a suit alleging over-billing on a project at San Francisco International Airport.

Tutor-Saliba has also been involved in contract disputes with Los Angeles airport officials, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Los Angeles Unified School District and UCLA. So it was no surprise that just before Christmas, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed a committee to keep an eye on the LAPD project.

If the city is so nervous, why did it hand this job to Tutor-Saliba?

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Gary Moore, who oversees the project for the city’s Bureau of Engineers, said the city invited 600 construction companies nationwide to submit bids, but only Tutor-Saliba did so. It came in at $243 million, but the city -- which was projecting a $200-million cost -- bargained them down to $231 million.

“There’s a lot of construction going on, so we’re seeing less and less bids,” said Moore, who feared that waiting to try to find another bidder might be futile and could run up the cost because of delays.

That’s a frightening prospect. With school building projects all over Los Angeles, a state bond issue about to finance dozens of major public works projects across California and New Orleans still being rebuilt, noncompetitive bidding could end up costing taxpayers a fortune. We need closer scrutiny than ever on these projects, and on this one, at least, I’m at your service.

When I told City Controller Laura Chick about my bird’s-eye view of the project, she used the powers of her office to appoint me honorary monitor.

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“For me this is less about Tutor and more about this thoughtless, shoot-from-the-hip, throw-deals-on-the-table-without-thinking way that the city of Los Angeles builds its major public facilities,” said Chick, who broke her own record for hyphens in one sentence.

Not long ago, she said, the new LAPD site was supposed to become a park and the cops were supposed to move to Little Tokyo; then all of a sudden that was scuttled.

“It was mindless and thoughtless and last-minute. We’ve got all this money, so let’s figure out where we’re going to put it, and let’s screw the park.”

In my new role, I wandered over to the construction site Tuesday and asked a supervisor if he could explain why I had seen eight guys staring at a hole as if they’d found Jimmy Hoffa in there.

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“Come here,” he said. “You see that backhoe over there?”

A concrete slab was found there, he said, and it would have to be dug up. You often find such surprises on a major construction site, he said, and workers meet to consult. Not long ago, a buried storage tank was found, and all sorts of experts had to be called in to test for hazardous materials.

“What’s that going to cost us?” I asked.

“A lot,” he said.

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Again, I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but moments after this conversation I was almost run over by a truck.

I had to jump out of the way, and the supervisor told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay. I told him to keep in mind that I’d be watching from across the street, but he wasn’t impressed when I told him Laura Chick had given me special oversight powers.

“Write something nice about us,” he said.

OK. For the record, Tutor-Saliba has not asked for any cost increases since it began the project in November. Of course, the project won’t be completed for nearly three more years.

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Nice guy that I am, I called the supervisor’s boss, Ron Tutor, to see if maybe I could tour the site with him or buy him lunch, since we’d be working together, in a manner of speaking.

Not only did he decline, but he took the Lord’s name in vain. He wondered why I thought the project was any of my business, and I tried to explain the watchdog role of the press. But he was the one doing the barking.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” he snarled, telling me he wasn’t going to waste his time trying to educate a [expletive] newspaper columnist.

The reason nobody else bid on the job is that construction companies have gone out of business in droves, Tutor argued, saying that doing work for public agencies in California was “a traumatic process at best.”

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He seemed to be doing OK, I suggested.

“I’m not hurting. Hey, I’m a successful contractor, if that bothers you.”

Not at all. Congratulations.

“The truth of it is, I don’t trust anybody who works for the L.A. Times,” Tutor said as I tried to keep him on the phone, because there was no telling what might come out of his mouth in such an agitated state.

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When project costs go up, he said with utter disgust for me and my ilk, it’s because of requests by the client 90% to 95% of the time.

“You have this pathetic idea in the media that contractors bid low and then go in and ask for changes, and people in the city roll over and start givin’ us money.”

No, I swear it. Thought never crossed my mind.

Unfortunately Tutor hung up before I had a chance to ask about his company’s $25,000 contribution to the campaign to relax term limits for L.A. City Council members; nor did I get to ask why eight guys were looking at a hole in the ground.

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Wait a minute. What’s this I see out the window now?

*

Reach the columnist at steve

.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at latimes

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.com/lopez.


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