Linn County Building Plans Draw Fire at Capitol

Jan 29, 2018

Updated at 4pm to add the committee's vote.

Republicans and Democrats split their votes Monday as a House local government subcommittee approved by a 3-to-2 vote the first step in blocking a controversial plan for constructing a $21-million health services building in Cedar Rapids.  

The plan was developed by the Democratic-dominated Linn County Board of Supervisors, and is drawing fire from the Republican-controlled legislature.

Linn County isn’t constructing the building, but will eventually own it.

“We will lease the county-owned property to the successful contractor who will build, to our plan, a building,” said Republican John Harris, the Board of Supervisors Chairman. “In this case, it’s our public health building. When it’s completed to our satisfaction, then we will purchase the building from the contractor. ”

Harris says lease-purchase enables Linn County to select a builder without opening the public bidding to all comers, with the lowest bidder getting the job.

“We select those contractors with whom we’ve had a history,” he said.  “In this case, we’ve selected contractors that have been active in bringing us back, and rebuilding our buildings, from the two-thousand-eight flood”.

Some state legislators, such as State Representative Jake Highfill of Johnston, say they’re alarmed by this way of choosing contractors.

“What was done in Linn County, they picked their contractors, they picked their suppliers and general contractors, without a public process and a public bid,” he said.  “They picked them before they even knew they wanted to be done. In my opinion, that’s sweetheart deals, that’s borderline corruption in my opinion. That’s how Chicago does politics.”

But Linn County Supervisor Harris counters that lease-purchase protects taxpayers against cost overruns. The county purchases the finished building at a pre-agreed price.

“There will be no additional costs claimed by the contractor for changes for changes in scope, unless they’re initiated by the county,” he said. “One of the things that we have found occasionally, when we’ve had the lowest bidder perform for us, is that they do end up coming back to us and reinterpreting the drawings and the specs, and they come back with additional charges for scope change.”

Representative Highfill’s legislation isn’t eliminating lease-purchasing, but clamping down on the bidding process, even though Linn County is offering the work to seven local contractors.

“But here is the other problem,” Highfill said. “There are 38 other contractors in the Linn County area who are unable to bid. So, if they want to keep the work local, they did not even allow the rest of the 38 contractors to bid on the work. They just picked their friends. It is a political payback and it’s political favoritism, and it’s one of the worst abuses I’ve seen in a long time in the state of Iowa.”

Understandably, contractors not invited to submit bids don’t like Linn County’s plan, and that extends to the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, representing contractors doing nearly all of Iowa’s public construction projects.

The Association’s Vice President Scott Newhard says Iowa’s public bidding laws  protect the public interest.

“We get very concerned whenever there’s talk about, ‘We’ve got a favored group of contractors’—even though it’ll be low bid—but these are the only ones who can submit a bid,” he said. “And that’s what they publicly stated they plan to do. And that, independent of us, got legislative leaders attention.  And that’s why there’s legislation being considered in subcommittee next week.”

Perhaps no one will be watching that legislation in the Republican-controlled legislature more closely than Republican Supervisor John Harris -- the only ‘no’ vote -- when the Democratic-dominated  Linn Supervisors Board adopted the lease-purchase plan.