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Justice center furniture source of contention for court

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As completion of the Grimes County Justice and Business Center moves into the homestretch, the subject of office furniture continues to be a source of contention for county commissioners. At the June 30 Special meeting, Commissioner Phillip Cox was the dissenting vote on a motion to bring in vendors HBI Office Solutions, Inc. and KI/Office Furniture Solutions and “choose items requested by the department heads and elected officials (DH/EO), eliminate all desk chairs, and cap furniture expenditures at $200,000.” Cox reiterated his comments at the June 29 Workshop Meeting about staying within budget and exploring the purchase of used furniture based on the seeming willingness of DH/EOs to accept used furniture.

The $10.455 million building price tag includes furnishing the three courtrooms, but architect PGAL also submitted a bid of $400,000 to furnish the offices as well. Commissioners opted to go out for bids to cover office needs. Facilities Maintenance/Project Manager Al Peeler arranged for DH/EOs to visit the new building and their office space in early January to determine the needs. By mid-February, furniture requests had been turned in and County Auditor Jessi Murphy advised what was turned in totaled about $150,000, well under PGAL’s $400,000 bid.

Sticker shock

By the June 17 back-to-back Workshop and Special Meeting, commissioners had reviewed furniture requests paired with pricing from the proposed vendors. In excess of the anticipated $150,000, sticker shock set in.

Commissioner Barbara Walker expressed her frustration saying some appeared to be frugal in their selections, but for others, “It looks like Christmas around here!”

Commissioner Chad Mallett said it was difficult for him to ascertain needs without actually going into each office.

DH/EOs responded saying they priced their office furniture online and never saw the proposed vendors’ prices. For example, 506th Judicial District Court Judge Gary Chaney watching virtually texted Judge Joe Fauth that he didn’t want a $3,000 couch, what he looked at online was about $500.

By the June 29 meetings, DH/EOs had been provided vendor pricing. Some reduced their furniture expense through other avenues, such as District Attorney Andria Bender who purchased furniture off Craig’s List with asset forfeiture funds, or County Clerk Vanessa Burzynski who requested to purchase her $18,000 roller shelving from funds dedicated for records and storage.

Burzynski also advised that the furniture she priced online included delivery and setup and was approximately $8,000 in contrast to a proposed vendor estimate of $17,000. The vendor rep present at court responded saying there was a difference in the quality of furniture sold online and what is purchased through her company from that same furniture company.

According to some DH/ EOs, some desks requested are for staff who currently don’t have a desk or even an office, with some working in a “closet.”

Within the range

Discussions during the June 29 Workshop Meeting and June 30 Special Meeting also included sale of county buildings to offset costs, and the moving costs which can’t be pinned down until it’s determined which furniture stays or goes. Peeler reminded commissioners he has no authority to tell elected officials what they can or can’t purchase, or what stays or goes.

Commissioners revisited the original budget and the ability to stay within the budget with expected and unexpected costs associated with a new storage building, renovating the Annex, a new phone system, lab testing, rerouting a water line for the second entrance off SH 90, a pandemic, a winter storm and excessive rain days.

With meetings broadcast on Facebook Live, social media weighed in. Commissioner Cox received a text during court from a company offering to sell furniture, and Facebook posters unfamiliar with state requirements for purchases chastised everyone from Judge Joe Fauth to Peeler about furniture costs and being over budget.

This prompted Commissioner Walker to say at the June 30 Special Meeting, “The building itself was $10.5 million and the additional money we had set aside for this build-out was a total of $12 million. So, we’re not 20% over. I want to defend our Project Manager, not only him but ourselves. We’re not 20% over cost. We’re well within the range we set from the beginning of the budget even with all of the alternates.”