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SCC jumps the gun on building start

fr cosmetologySouthwestern Community College broke state policy this summer when it launched a construction project before securing final contract authorization from the state.

SCC was eager to get underway with $2.3 million in renovation work on its Sylva campus — in particular a renovation of the cosmetology training floor. Timing for that part of the work was critical. Cosmetology students are a big business and big source of revenue for SCC.

There was a tight timeframe to get the work done over the summer, when classes weren’t being held.

“This was the best time to get this done,” said Tyler Goode, SCC spokesperson.

Rather than follow state protocols, SCC started the cosmetology renovation June 24 — well before the Aug. 10 date the N.C. Office of Construction and N.C. Attorney General would officially sign off on the contract allowing work to begin.

“There would certainly be a lot of risk involved in that, so that would not be recommended,” said Latif Kaid, assistant director of the state construction office. “If they were doing work prior to the state’s approval of the contract, they were working on their own risk.”

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SCC took a gamble when it decided to forge ahead with cosmetology renovations, despite not having final state approval of the building contract.

But SCC was betting that the state would approve the contract quickly, and there would be no harm in getting started while they waited. After all, the mountains are a long way from Raleigh.

SCC officials miscalculated how long it would take the state to sign off on the contract, however. The lag time wasn’t a few days, but dragged on for seven weeks.

SCC President Dr. Don Tomas said his understanding was that it was just a technicality, given that SCC had already gotten preliminary approval of the blueprints and approval of the construction bid from the state.

But Tomas said he wasn’t “100 percent involved” with “the down in the weeds part” of the construction details.

“I recall them saying ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, don’t worry about that, that will come through,’ and it kind of took longer than everybody anticipated. I don’t know all the legalese and paperwork involved with it,” Tomas said.

Goode declined to second-guess whether SCC would have done things differently had it known then what it knows now — namely how long it would take that final contract approval to come through.

“That is just a hypothetical. I really can’t answer what we would have done had we known,” Goode said.

Once work had started, there was no turning back, however.

“If you go in and tear it out, it has to be ready in time for school to start,” said Tiffany Allen, SCC’s director of facility development. “Cosmetology is one of our biggest programs here and to lose that for a whole fall semester would be hard for us to take.”

Meanwhile, however, SCC couldn’t make any payments to Western Builders for the work being done. Western Builders had to float the project, including buying materials and paying subcontractors, without being able to submit invoices or draw downs from the college as it went.

While SCC and Western Builders signed the contract in June, it lacked the signature of the N.C. Attorney General, which can only happen after final vetting from the state construction office — and as a result, wasn’t a legal contract when work started.

That carried a degree of risk had there been an injury, a construction error or dispute with SCC over the scope of work.

It is unclear whether anyone with the state construction office was aware that SCC had jumped the gun on construction. A staffer with the state construction office is assigned to the mountain territory, but unless SCC mentioned it to him, he wouldn’t have known.

“Otherwise we have no clue what is going on out there,” Kaid said.

Steve Lipke, the western region project monitor with the state construction office, didn’t realize that SCC had already started construction until he showed up to do a final inspection of the project, according to Chris Meyers, a spokesperson for the N.C. Dept. of Administration.

The contract had just been approved on Aug. 10, and just four days later on Aug. 14, SCC was giving Lipke a tour of the finished renovation.

“When we were going to do the inspection, we discovered construction had occurred before a contract was in place,” Meyers said.

Lipke said he was a little surprised, but there wasn’t anything to be done about it at that point.

“Our office is not law enforcement, we aren’t police. We are engineers and architects and project managers. We don’t have any sort of policing jurisdiction,” Lipke said.

“I am more concerned with the final product. My intent was to make sure the building that was added was safe and that everything works.”

Lipke said he personally wouldn’t have advised SCC’s course of action.

“We would always recommend you have a contract executed before starting work,” Lipke said. “If you don’t have a contract in hand the risk is not worth the reward or benefit.”

Allen, SCC’s facility development director, said she was under the impression Lipke knew work was underway.

Lipke sat in on a pre-construction meeting in June between SCC and the building contractor, and knew how eager they were to start the cosmetology renovations. 

“Basically during pre-construction everyone discussed the urgency of it,” Allen said.

Allen said Lipke alluded that he could help expedite the contract approval.

“That’s what everybody thought, but he evidentially didn’t have the connections we thought he did,” Allen said.

In an email conversation in July, Lipke asked Allen if SCC may have gone ahead and started work.

“Between us, has the GC begun work?” Lipke wrote in an email to Allen on July 23, asking about the general contractor’s job status.

“The GC has moved in with material and equipment and plans to work as the contract hold up seems to be technicalities not so much ‘if’ they will get it,” Allen replied. “As you know we are on a tight tight schedule...”

However, the contractor was well underway with the project by then, having started on June 24.

Allen routinely checked in with the state construction office on the status of the contract approval, based on multiple emails from Allen to the contract coordinator at the state construction office.

But the response was always the same: first-come, first serve. SCC just had to get in line.

“Can you advise where we stand on this contract?” Allen wrote on June 28 to Bill Murchison, contract coordinator with the state construction office.

Murchison replied that he got SCC’s contract on June 23, but he was still processing applications from June 11th.

Allen checked in again on July 6.

“I hate to keep bothering you regarding the contract for Southwestern Community College but the contractor and the college have a strict timeline where we need to complete cosmetology prior to fall semester or else we’d lose the enrollment for fall. Can you update your status as to this contract?” Allen wrote.

Murchison replied it would be up in the pecking order soon.

Once, Allen reached out to Lipke to see if he could help.

“Can you tell me if you was able to discuss with Bill the urgency of our contract? The builder is ready to begin work,” Allen wrote in an email to Lipke in late June.

“As of yet, the contact has not been approved by the AG.  However, I am in close contact with Bill Murchison, and will alert you to when the approval occurs, immediately,” Lipke wrote back.

It was a nerve-wracking conundrum for the college.

In the end, it all worked out but it was down to the wire. On the first day of class in August, SCC cosmetology students couldn’t get into their classroom because it was being inspected that day, but it was up and running by day two.

The construction work on the cosmetology building was only a small fraction of the overall renovation project.

The $2.3 million contract with Western Builders includes renovations to 15,000 square feet in Founders and Bradford Hall. The cosmetology piece accounts for only about $200,000 of the total project.

That’s likely another reason why it seemed benign to proceed with the work.

“The project was approved, the money was approved, all our I’s were dotted and T’s crossed and ducks in a row. Then there is the follow-up letter, which I guess is the contract,” Tomas said. “I thought you could go ahead and commence at that point but I guess what you are saying is no.”

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