NJ lawmakers striking out in bid to learn Statehouse project details
TRENTON — There’s still scarce detail publicly available about a nearly $300 million Statehouse renovation project due to start within weeks, unless a pair of lawsuits challenging the project knock it off course.
The architectural and engineering consultants are identified – Nelson (known at that time as H2L2 Architects and Planners) and Preservation Design Partnership, the same companies hired in 2012 for what was then a $38 million restoration of the building’s exterior. That project was expanded when the scope of the Statehouse’s structural problems were cataloged.
The expanded project will not be rebid. The state hasn’t specified what Nelson/PDP will be paid, but a budget for the project made public last month lists $19 million for design services.
“There’s an architect who has done the exterior work, and we need to amend that contract,” said Treasurer Ford Scudder.
George Skarmeas, PDP’s design director, told the State Capitol Joint Management Commission the company is an expert in historic preservation whose employees have worked on nine statehouses. He said it’s important to use a firm that has worked on monumental historic landmarks.
“They have a complexity of their own, and they require a certain level of approach, surgery, design and construction to be done for the project to be done correctly,” Skarmeas said.
Separately, PDP has also worked with the state Department of Environmental Protection and state Historic Trust on updating guidelines for protecting historic properties in flood-print areas. The firm’s managing principal, Dominique Hawkins, had prepared the initial guide for the state in 1997.
To date, there has been little controversy about the hiring of Nelson/PDP, though some in the Legislature said the project should have been rebid when its scope expanded.
More eyebrows were raised by the bond counsel hired to handle the $300 million borrowed for the project – Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi P.C., the firm of former Attorney General Jeff Chiesa, who also was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Gov. Chris Christie in 2013. The bonds were sold in a private placement on May 11, the same day they were approved by the state Economic Development Authority.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, said the bonds were sold quickly in an effort to short-circuit lawsuits he and fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Raymond Lesniak had already announced that have also been joined by two Republican senators and a Republican assemblyman who is also running for governor, Jack Ciattarelli.
Wisniewski said he wants to know whether the state told the purchaser of the $300 million in bonds, RBC Capital Markets, of the likelihood of a legal challenge. If it didn’t, that could violate securities law, he contends. He said the speed with which the state borrowed the funds is suspect.
“They have a guilty conscience here. How they handled this shows that they themselves knew that this deal stunk and that it was subject to legal challenge,” Wisniewski said.
Christie’s administration says the bond sale was done legally and appropriately.
Lesniak, D-Union, said he and Republican Sens. Christopher “Kip” Bateman and Michael Doherty have withdrawn their request for a temporary restraining order after the state agreed no demolition will begin until the lawsuit is heard June 14.
“At some point in time, we’ll find out why the governor was so hell-bent on getting this huge expenditure through without it going through the legislative process, without any public scrutiny,” Lesniak said.
The project is an expansion of a plan begun in 2012 to restore the exterior of the Statehouse. From architectural work through construction, that was estimated at $38 million, plus $6 million more to relocate oft-flooded electrical and mechanical equipment out of the Statehouse garage basement.
In addition to Nelson and PDP, consultants hired for the $38 million project included Silman for structural engineering, Loring for mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering and Jensen Hughes (then known as AON) for code analysis and fire protection.
That project was approved by the Legislature by votes of 39-0 in the Senate and 74-0 with four abstentions in the Assembly.
The architects hired by the state, Nelson/PDP, discovered extensive damage to the building while in the design and engineering phase in 2013 and said the work would cost $25 million more than anticipated. The state asked its consultants to study a possible comprehensive renovation and restoration.
In November, Christie announced an estimated $300 million project. This time, the construction was approved by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission, rather than the Legislature, and the borrowing was then approved by the state Economic Development Authority.
Lawmakers continue to press, without much success, for details from the state Treasury Department about the impending renovations. So far, budget details made public for the project consist of just nine lines of broad categories.
The Statehouse project is budgeted at $214 million. The restoration of renovation of the executive section of the building, which hasn’t undergone significant work in around 60 years, is estimated at $173 million. Improvements in the legislative wing are pegged at $20 million. There is $1 million each budgeted for fitting out temporary space and conserving artwork, plus $19 million for design services.
The budget also includes $15 million for construction management, $3 million for permits and $1 million for complying with affirmative action. On top of those, the budget anticipates $55 million for project contingencies – the unexpected surprises that come with what is, in some sections, an 18th century building.
Those broad categories, made public last month, add up to $288 million. At a budget hearing last week, Scudder said the budget is currently $284 million.
Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden, said she’s getting questions from constituents you might not think would be tuned in about how the state could approve borrowing $300 million for Statehouse repairs when there are other needs.
“We need the repairs, and I tell them that. But I need an explanation so I can actually out there and explain to them how we are spending the money,” Cruz-Perez said.
“It’s important for Treasury to provide the Legislature with a detailed explanation of the project so the members get the right information out to the public,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen.
Scudder said he needs to be cautious while discussing the project – in part due to the lawsuits filed by lawmakers seeking to stop it, but also because he doesn’t want to detail expected costs before would-be contractors bid competitively for the work.
“From a competitive bidding standpoint, it’s difficult for us to provide a line-by-line, you know, ‘Here’s what this is going to cost,’ because then anyone who bids competitively for the project knows exactly what we think we should be spending on anything,” Scudder said.
Previous Statehouse renovations have been financed through the New Jersey Building Authority, rather than through the EDA. Technically, the state has leased its Statehouse from the NJBA since the 1980s. On top of the new $300 million in borrowing, the state also issued $75 million in refunding bonds 11 days ago in order to end that lease and repurchase the Statehouse – so it could lease it to the EDA.