Completed in 2003, $19M State Hospital Held up over Security, Construction

A few miles south of Milledgeville on Ga. 112, a brand new $19 million state hospital building sits vacant and unused.

State officials say they need it to treat mentally ill people who are charged with committing crimes.

But even though construction was completed in 2003 and the construction branch of Georgia's state government accepted the structure from the contractor and architect, the building has been deemed "nonfunctional" in its current condition.

Since 2003, according to state records, a host of problems have turned up. Among them:

  • Electronic locking and fire alarm systems that didn't work properly.
  • Roof leaks throughout the building, and ceilings that weren't properly attached to the structure.
  • Air vents that could be pushed out, allowing access to the space above the ceilings.
  • An exterior security fence that had to be completely taken down and rebuilt.

A Department of Human Resources official wrote in an Aug. 29 e-mail that he and his colleagues were "amazed as more lack of construction/poor workmanship issues are found. However, thank God they are being found before we attempt to put forensic patients and staff into this building."

The construction division chief of the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission says the state will take legal steps to go after the surety bond that the contractor put up before beginning the project. The money would be used to pay for completing the work.

The contractor says his company built the building according to the design specifications and addressed all the problems that were brought to his attention. If state officials are dissatisfied with the design, he said, that's not the contractor's fault.

The architect declined to comment at all.

Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, said, "I haven't been able to track down all of the details going into this, but it does sound like somebody dropped the ball somewhere along the way. The contractor looks like he skimped on a number of items. And it does look like the GSFIC may not have picked up on that early enough. There's probably lots of blame to go around. The bottom line is we've got a building sitting there and it has been ready for a year and we have a tremendous need for it but yet we haven't been able to occupy it."

State Rep. Bobby Parham, D-Milledgeville, said, "That building is a perfect way not to build a building."

Growing Need, Limited Capacity

The Payton B. Cook Building is supposed to be a maximum-security "forensic hospital" - a place where criminal defendants can be evaluated for mental competency and treated if found incompetent or "not guilty by reason of insanity." In a mental health system that tries to treat most clients in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their needs, a forensic hospital stands out as a small but important high-security exception.

The Georgia Department of Human Resources' statewide mental health plan says there is a growing need for forensic beds, "but the numbers needing services are far greater than the system has the capacity to serve." As evidence, the plan cites the large numbers of mentally ill inmates now in county jails.

Several regional hospitals around Georgia offer forensic services, but traditionally the largest and most heavily used forensic center has been in Milledgeville.

Forensic patients at Central State are currently housed in the Binion Building, which has a capacity of 84. Built in 1946, it is a grim prison-like facility with hard tile interiors and a walled-in courtyard in the center. Since at least the 1970s, state officials and mental health advocates have recommended replacing it.

In the 1990s, the state Legislature agreed. The Georgia General Assembly authorized construction of a 196-bed forensic hospital. Estimated cost: $15.2 million.

In 1998, the Atlanta architectural firm of Nix Mann Perkins & Will was hired to design the hospital and oversee construction. LPS Construction Co. of Statesboro, a company with a long track record of building large commercial and industrial projects, submitted the low bid of $16.2 million and was hired in August 2000. Ground-breaking was held three months later.

In May 2003, the architect issued a letter accepting the completed project, with the exception of a few "punch-list" items that still needed work.

GSFIC accepted the building.

Gena Abraham is director of Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission's construction division. The GSFIC manages state construction projects. Abraham was not in the chief's job when the hospital was being built, but she inherited the challenge of bringing the Cook building to completion.

Abraham said the architect's 2003 letter indicated that the building was ready to go.

"We received that document from the architect, so we believed at the time we had the grand opening for the facility that things were OK," she said. The architectural firm, now called Perkins & Will, declined to make any comment for this article.

Problems Abounded

As state officials and consultants took a closer look, Abraham said, "We started to discover problems. That's where this thing took off to a whole new degree."

The DHR refused to accept the building.

Joe Watkins in the DHR's Office of Facilities and Support Services said in a July 29, 2003, e-mail to the GSFIC, "DHR refused to accept it since the building was nonfunctional for our designed program to serve state (mental health) clients and staff."

He continued, "Security system was nonfunctioning including the exterior fence and interior doors, sallyport, etc. ... too many to list here."

Watkins wanted to know "if and when the project will be turned over to the bonding company to get it ready for our usage and occupancy."

He added that the project, officially called DHR-62, "has caused a lot of concern for us all."

The GSFIC's project manager, Jason Williams, replied a week later that his agency was working out the bugs. The contractor said all punch-list items would be complete by the end of August.

But by December 2003, there were still problems. And month after month, new ones kept turning up. According to GSFIC records:

Two days before Christmas, Watkins reported problems with an outer security fence. Concrete footings were not poured to the required depth. He asked if it should be torn down and replaced. Eventually it was.

In January 2004, a security consultant reported problems with the fire alarm system. He said, "Due to the extent of problems encountered, there is some concern as to whether a proper initial certification was ever performed for this system."

By June 2004, there were reports of leaks throughout the building, and the fire alarm system still could not be certified.

In September 2004, a hospital employee discovered that some of the air vents could be pushed up, giving access to the space above the ceiling. They were supposed to be security fixtures that were fastened in place.

By November 2004, there were still leaks.

By last July, work on the fire alarm was nearly complete, but the system had been damaged by a lightning strike.

In August, Watkins reported the electrical system was not properly grounded, the elevators weren't working right, and that "hard and soft drop ceilings were not installed to design specifications and are a health/safety issue due to potential falling."

He added, "Please note, this is not all of the Cook (building) issues, but the major ones known about at this time."

$1 Million More Needed

Abraham said last week that many of the problems have been solved.

"The fence has been completely fixed. That was with the help of the contractor and the subcontractor," she said.

But some problems remain. Abraham said they include: the installation of a fuel tank; grading to control stormwater runoff; ceilings not properly anchored to the structure; electrical system grounding; and a possible problem with a boiler.

She estimated it will cost of $800,000 to $1 million to make the fixes.

That's on top of the $19.2 million now estimated to be the total project cost.

GSFIC has been spending money out of its own operating budget to make repairs, but Abraham said it does not have enough funds to finish fixing all the problems. To get the money, she said, the state will go after the contractor's surety bond.

LPS Vice President Terry Fletcher said, "We kind of find that really confusing to us, because we haven't had any correspondence from GSFIC about ceiling problems or other problems. They can't show us anything in writing that we have not responded to and sent people up to check on." He said several of his letters to GSFIC asking for more information have gone unanswered.

He and LPS President Wallace Wiggins acknowledged there were some problems with the construction, and say they addressed all the problems that were brought to their attention. But they said the real problem seems to be that DHR is not happy with the design.

"All we understand is we were required to build the job per our contract, which we did," Fletcher said. "If GSFIC didn't direct us to build it the way DHR wanted that's not LPS's fault. ... We fulfilled our contract."

Abraham said the legal process of collecting the bond is lengthy and the outcome uncertain.

In the meantime, she said, the state will try to fix all the problems.

"We think we could probably fix the remaining problems within about six months," Abraham said. But she cautioned, "In the past, every time we thought were close to finding a light at the end of the tunnel we literally opened up the building and found a new problem."

Macon Telegraph

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