Extra money for community center rejected

A request for more funds has prompted the Irvine City Council to launch an investigation into the construction costs for a community center at Northwood Community Park.

Saying the project, which started in 2012, "really represents a first of its kind for the city," City Manager Sean Joyce told the council at its meeting Tuesday that the center's expansion and rehabilitation went over its $5.3-million budget and that an additional $500,000 was needed to stay on track for a mid-August finish.

The original construction contract was for $3.2 million, but the council approved $4 million in renovations on Nov. 22, 2011, according to Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway.

The council rejected Joyce's request 3 to 2, with council members Larry Agran and Beth Krom dissenting. Instead the city attorney was directed to investigate the center's finances and report back in 30 days.

Joyce apologized to the council for breaking the news without notice.

"I know that your rule is the same as mine in the organization: Nobody likes surprises," he said. "And I apologize on behalf of this organization that we bring you a surprise."

Lalloway described the situation as "deeply disturbing."

"This project is contrary to everything I believe in — open, honest and transparent government," he said. "To sum up, basically this construction project is 42% over budget, there have been unauthorized changes to a previously approved council plan and finally we see incorrect staff reports being presented to this council for our approval, none of which are something that we should be condoning here."

Calling the overages "unacceptable," Lalloway said, "None of the change order dollars add up."

Change orders denote deviations from a project's original contract.

The project currently has $1 million in its coffers, money earmarked for work already underway.

Additions to the community center include an exercise room, a new entrance and courtyard, and meeting and crafts room.

Councilwoman Christina Shea drew attention to a recently constructed space earmarked for tai chi classes, which had been included without council direction.

"We just can't have residents coming forward and saying, 'As you're building a park, would you add on a room for me to do this, to do that,'" she said. "It has to really go through a defined process. It has to be part of the city approval and if that wasn't done, and it wasn't I think in the $90,000 [tai chi] add-on, that is what really troubles me about this project."

Krom took a different stance, calling attention to the fact that tai chi had been practiced on the basketball courts until now. The newly constructed patio could also be used for various activities, she said.

Agran agreed and cautioned against stalling work on the site, which would trigger an array of hidden costs.

"Indeed, the Constitution of the United States talks about building a more perfect union. It doesn't talk about creating one that is perfect," he said. "This is a process."

During the second round of comments, Joyce tried to set the record straight, saying the Community Services Commission hadn't given the go-ahead on building the tai chi facility.

"I want to make the city attorney's work as easy as can be — there was no direction," he said. "There was a staff action taken without direction given to make those improvements at the park."

Mayor Steven Choi expressed worry that if the project was in dire straits despite having $1 million handy, $500,000 would not see it through the remaining four months.

"It's really confusing to me: $500,000 will last six months of construction and a million-dollar balance still left ... will last only several days?" he said. "I don't understand."

Joyce also conceded that no one had thought of demolishing the property and rebuilding, which might have been less expensive.

"I'm not cavalier about public money," he said twice.

The council sided with Lalloway, who requested clarification to better "understand what happened so we as a council can make changes to this entire process, which to me is beneath the city of Irvine and our fine reputation."

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