EDITORIAL: School District Seeking Input on Possible Tax Increase, Part Four

Read Part One

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

— Abraham Maslow

Facilitator Yvonne Wilcox used an interesting phrase as she was introducing her “Gainstorming” planning techniques to the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners on November 21. She referred to the planning of County facilities as “40-level chess” — as a process that requires thoughtful and skillful consideration of many different stakeholder groups and their political agendas.

The BOCC lost their game of chess this past November, when voters rejected their $26.6 million tax increase proposal for a 34,000-square-foot Sheriff’s facility in Harman Park.

During the planning of that tax measure, the BOCC had looked at several locations for a new facility, and at numerous architectural drawings showing how a future facility might fit on each parcel of land. (I presume the architects were well paid for their work.) Most of the drawings included an estimate of construction costs” and “Soft Costs.” The “Soft Costs” include the architect fees, engineering fees, permit fees, surveying, etc. Plus money for “contingencies.”

There are always “contingencies.”

As I understand it, in government work, “Soft Costs” generally run about 30 percent of the construction price. In the example below, the “Soft Costs” are quoted as 27 percent.

I really have to hand it to the development industry for coming up with that term: “Soft Costs.” Makes it sound so… harmless and innocent, somehow.

In the above example for a proposed County facility on Hot Springs Boulevard, as estimated by the architects from Reynolds Ash + Associates and Reilly Johnson Architecture, the price for the architectural design would equal about 8.5 percent of the construction cost, meaning about $1.7 million.

Pretty good work, if you can get it.

Noted American psychologist Abraham Maslow apparently subscribed to the idea that everything looks like a nail, if the only tool you have is a hammer. I believe there’s a corollary to that idea, if we are talking about the planning of government facilities. If you hire an architecture firm to guide your planning process, then every solution will look like new multi-million-dollar buildings.

The BOCC hired Reynolds Ash and Reilly Johnson to guide their plans for expanded County facilities, and we got a $26.6 million tax increase proposal for an oversized jail and Sheriff’s Office, instead of a serious look at the renovation of our existing (and historical) Courthouse.

Meanwhile, the Archuleta School District (ASD) hired RTA Architects, out of Colorado Springs, to facilitate its planning processes, so we might guess that the key to improving local public education in the future now seems to lie in building and expanding buildings, rather than — for example — hiring and retaining superior teachers.

Two years ago, the ASD School Board was engaged in preliminary talks about a “Mill Levy Override” to help improve student outcomes here in Pagosa. The main talking points focused on “technology” and “increased salaries.” (ASD does not pay its teachers particularly well, compared to certain other Colorado communities.)

Around the same time, a couple of local builders — Steve Graham and Jack Bridges — approached the School Board with a proposal to construct permanently affordable housing on some ASD property adjacent to property the builders had recently purchased. Part of the plan was to make some of the housing available to school teachers. The School Board liked the general concept and instructed the ASD administration to do an inventory of District properties, to make sure that the parcel in question would not be needed as a site for future District facilities.

I don’t believe the Board intended to use a mill levy increase to fund new buildings, but don’t quote me on that.

The Administration hired RTA and gave them a somewhat larger mission: to analyze all District’s facilities and to propose a Facilities Master Plan. (As mentioned yesterday in Part Three, the District already had a barely-used ‘Facilities Master Plan’ from a few years earlier.)

One thing I did find interesting, when looking at the prices quoted in the new RTA Facility Assessment.

This item:

In the top corner is a statement that the total cost for the repairs and upgrades in the RTA Assessment have 30 percent added to the price, for “Soft Costs.” Just below that note, you see some prices, where, indeed, the preliminary cost has had 30 percent added to it for the “Total Cost”:

To my surprise, I saw that RTA had added 30 percent in “Soft Costs” to everything. I mean, everything.

Such as, for example, the items shown here:

For the life of me, I cannot imagine why we would need architectural drawings, engineering calculations, or soil testing, for someone to repaint a handrail.  Maybe I have a limited imagination.

I contacted members of the ASD School Board, and some folks connected with the Planning Assistance Team, to get some clarity about why someone might be billing the taxpayers “Soft Costs” fees for ordinary building improvements and repairs such as painting and caulking… and I got a prompt response from Superintendent Linda Reed.  Here’s her full explanation:

Thanks for your inquiry. ‘Soft Costs’ is a standard term used in a facilities analysis and refers to those costs that are not “things”. The term refers to requirements like soil testing, surveying, and other 3rd party tasks for public sector projects. They are not tied to specific things like the design of new door knobs that you referred to in your email.

While I appreciate Ms. Reed’s prompt response, it did not clarify for me why “30 percent Soft Costs” have been added by RTA Architects to the price of maintenance items like painting and caulking.

I spent some time yesterday trying to better understand what is meant by “Soft Costs” … and all the websites I accessed were discussing new construction, or major remodels. I have yet to find an instance where a school district paid out “Soft Costs” when the custodian repainted a handrail or caulked a crack in the wall.

But I confess to knowing very little about how architects get paid, or how school buildings get remodeled and repaired.

Or how a community of taxpayers would vote on a tax increase for new buildings… as opposed to, for example, a tax increase for decent teacher salaries… in a town with a deepening housing crisis.

I encourage our Daily Post readers to mark December 5 on your calendars, and catch a glimpse of the six “scenarios” developed with the help of RTA Architects, in between the basketball games at Pagosa Springs High School. The event runs from 4 until 8:30pm.

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.