Saturday, February 19, 2011

How Republicans Won - New Mexico's Construction "Bonfire"

Although we New Mexicans were supposed to be "shocked, absolutely shocked" by the revelations of the KRQE's investigative reporter, Larry Barker, hardly anyone around here so much as squirmed while we watched.

Now, admittedly, moving a story from the quiet FOX News affiliate (KRQE, Channel 13, Albuquerque) to the postings of Short Current Essays requires a surgical removal of Barker's road weary hyperbole.  However, the story is, well, the story.

New Mexico Legislature Project Planning (photo source)

To begin, three specific examples were covered.

1.The Watrous Community Center, Watrous, New Mexico

4,200 sf
Legislative funding:  $510,000
Estimated cost of completion: $200,000
Project status:  Construction ceased 3 years ago when available funds had been spent.  Building shell and site work are largely complete.  Remaining cost is primarily for interior finish.

2.  Auto Repair Shop/Classroom Building, Luna Community College

5,000 sf
Legislative funding: $300,000
Estimated cost of completion: $300,000
Project status:  Construction ceased 4 years ago when available funds had been spent.  Construction completion includes  site work, building shell and several long lead purchases for auto repair use (most not installed).  The building shell is now used as an open, opportunity storage area.

3.  City Government Center, Mora, New Mexico

44,000 sf
Legislative funding:  $5,000,000
Estimated cost of completion:  $7,000,000
Project status: Construction ceased when available funds had been spent.  The building shell is complete, but the project will require substantial interior finish prior to being usable.  Exterior architectural features and site work are largely completed.

First, let's clear up a bit of MeanMesa business by addressing the following questions.

1.  Was there overt corruption involved in these projects?

Probably a little, but not much compared to state issues such as the Court House scandal in Albuquerque.

2.  Was there undue favoritism in the selection of contractors for these projects?

Probably a little, but also, probably, not much more than average for other  legislative  projects undertaken during the Richardson term.

3.  Was there glaring incompetence involved in these projects?

Probably a little, but also, probably, limited to that of a bunch of lawmakers who both lacked the construction and planning experience to get it done better and the experience which would have told them that they needed a professional to oversee the process.

During the 2010 campaign, MeanMesa, as usual, canvassed our neighbors.  From the most to the least politically informed, the common complaint centered on our state's inability to "get its money's worth" on everything from projects such as these to the simplest provision of state services.  It became clear that New Mexico faced the challenges of all sorts of necessary improvements without the sophistication required to get them "done right."

It would be handy indeed to condemn and criticise these legislative efforts as ugly evidence of conspiracy and corruption, but a more rational criticism would track to simple, repetitive cases of horrible project management.  Making matters worse, solving these disasters before they became "ghost buildings in the sand" would not have required rocket scientists.

Let's take a look at the fairly standard approach to such projects.

(Source MeanMesa)
The largest element which was missing from the projects was the management expertise required to actually build them.  When the "owner" of a project, in this case the legislature, assumes that such endeavors will simply build themselves, we have a situation similar to the serial killer who insists on representing himself at trial.  Legislators were not elected because they were competent program managers.  They were elected because they claimed to have enough common sense to hire a program manager if they needed one.

We see the further question of loyalty and accountability.

There are program management firms running in hordes like cock roaches.  Their common trait is an unusual ability to take clients such as out legislature on a ride.  Unhappily, as was the case with these projects, that ride went no where.  Worse, when things turn South, these same "managers" show their second best quality, that is, assisting the "gun shy" politicians in blaming someone else for the  project catastrophe.

The point?  Easy.  For the amount of tax dollars lost in project failures such as these, the state of New Mexico can own its very own program management capacity.  Whether or not such a venture evolves into a dynamic, efficient force or another lethargic New Mexican bureaucracy is a responsibility for voters and tax payers.

We have a fairly sketchy record as such things.

A Final Note

MeanMesa proposed a program management lab as an addition to the construction management curriculum at UNM several years ago.  At the time, the stimulus money from the American Recovery Act was just beginning to flow into infrastructure projects, and our state seemed to be pretty light on such expertise.  The University was actually warm to the idea.

With the loss of state revenue which resulted from the Republican Great Recession of 2008, the proposition was tabled until better times economically.  News of projects failures such as the ones noted here (there are undoubtedly more than these three...) plays directly into the hands of the neo-con detractors anxious to sabotage the recovery effort.

Nothing helps the incomprehensible political campaigns of the tea bags more than, well, more suffering, despair and disillusionment.

Hey, there's always tomorrow!

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