Courthouse costs- Who's doing the math?

Tuesday, July 9, 2002

The 28-story Eagleton Federal Courthouse in St. Louis is an impressive addition to the skyline. At 567 feet, it is the fourth tallest building in St. Louis. It has 28 stories, 1,037,632 square feet and 49 courtrooms. And the federal government, which opened the courthouse nearly two years ago, claims it is the largest courthouse in the world. Cost: $185 million.

For more than 10 years, the federal government has been planning a new federal courthouse in Cape Girardeau. Based on the latest funding plan, it could well be the most expensive courthouse in the world, based on per-square-foot costs.

The existing federal building on Broadway is too small, the government says. A few years ago, the government bought four acres just west of City Hall on Independence Street. Cost: $6 million, which included some design work.

A Chicago architectural firm drew up building plans that included a central atrium that would have been capped by a skylight in the winter and left open in the summer without air conditioning. That plan was shot down as impractical. Cost: $500,000.

Now the government has picked three contractor-architect groups to compete for the project. Each of them will be paid to draw up preliminary plans. Cost: $75,000 each.

The site for the new federal courthouse has some vacant buildings that have to be removed, and a St. Charles, Mo., company has been hired to tear them down. Cost: $470,000.

AmerenUE, the utility company that provides the electricity in this area, has a substation on the property that has to be moved. Cost: nearly $1 million.

And just last week, a subcommittee in the U.S. House took the first step toward appropriating the money for construction of the new 150,000-square-foot federal courthouse. Cost: $49.3 million.

Surely there are alarm bells and whistles going off somewhere.

If Congress goes along with the subcommittee's recommendation, and if the funding makes it into a bill that reaches the desk of President Bush -- who did not include any funding for the courthouse in his budget request, the cost of Cape Girardeau's new federal courthouse will be in the neighborhood of $328 a square foot, nearly double the cost of the Eagleton Federal Courthouse -- not counting land acquisition, derailed architectural plans, design competition, site clearing and substation relocation.

While the funding proposed for the Cape Girardeau courthouse is nearly twice as much as the new federal courthouse in St. Louis on a square-foot basis, the courthouse here is more than three times above local construction costs.

For example:

The Cape Girardeau School District's new 120,000-square-foot Career and Technology Center cost $11 million, or about $92 a square foot.

The district's new 203,000-square-foot Central High school, set to open this fall, cost about $20 million, or approximately $98 a square foot.

Keep in mind that the cost of both schools also included a lot of extras such as specialized school fixtures and equipment. In the case of the high school, it also includes athletic fields.

It would be nice to think that someone in Washington is looking at all the costs -- past, present and future -- associated with the federal courthouse planned for Cape Girardeau. It would be nicer to think someone in authority can do math and is wondering why so many tax dollars are about to be spent in Cape Girardeau for courtrooms and offices.

But here's what would make a prudent person wonder about that: Although a congressional subcommittee is prepared to spend nearly $50 million to build a courthouse here, there are no building plans, no blueprints, no schematic for electrical wiring or telephone outlets. The contest for the contractor-architects hasn't been held yet. The General Services Administration cites the lack of plans as a plus, saying using a design-build concept means construction can start on the new courthouse before a finished design is put together. This way, the GSA says, the building will go up much more quickly -- possibly within the next four years.

Only in Washington would anyone think about spending $57.5 million -- that's the tally so far -- on a courthouse for Cape Girardeau without having building plans in place.

The issue here isn't whether or not Cape Girardeau needs a new federal courthouse. U.S. district judges who visit here to hold court, as well as other federal officials, have made a pretty convincing argument that there is a need, even though how to house other federal agencies and how to use the existing federal building seem to change almost as often as anyone cares to inquire.

The real question is how tax dollars are being spent so extravagantly on a building whose cost surely could be expected to fall somewhere between a new public high school and the world's largest courthouse in St. Louis.

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