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Before the dirt turns, arena project failing on transparency and accountability

Before a shovel of dirt has really been turned to begin construction of Lincoln’s $344 million arena project, the project has already failed to deliver on the mayor’s promise that it would done with the utmost of transparency and accountability.

For many reasons.

But let’s start with the most glaring: Lincoln taxpayers recently learned they will be paying Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad an extra $3.4 million to get out of the way of the project. BNSF told the city that due to delays in getting the project off the ground last fall, they are behind schedule, and it will take 3.4 million dollar bills to get them back on schedule, and the city will pay them up front, on a quarterly basis.

And… if the city doesn’t pay up, it can kiss its promised-to-UNL and promised-to-Lincoln September 2013 opening goodbye.

But that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is the fact that arena program administrator Dan Marvin has not felt compelled to even explain to the public, the guys footing the bill, exactly who is to blame for the project having gotten behind schedule. Journal Star reporter Nancy Hicks asked him who was responsible for the delay, and he responded, “I don’t think it is helpful to point fingers.”

So somebody – either the city or BNSF – held things up to the point where the project is behind schedule and now BNSF is exercising its right (as allowed by the railroad’s agreement with the city) to charge the city for any extra costs, and we the public don’t need to know who’s fault it is? I also asked Marvin who’s fault it was, and he did not respond.

Utmost transparency, huh? Transparency is not just putting your agendas and background materials on a website that few people know where to find or navigate. That is standard procedure at city hall. (Go ahead and try finding the JPA agenda once, I’ll time you. Gene found it fast, but he’s smarter than the average bear.)

Transparency is not just allowing the public into the room for your JPA meetings; that is the law.

And transparency is definitely NOT allowing the prime contractor to handle all of the bidding and bypassing the city’s purchasing system to advertise and take bids. Translation: You, the public, will never be able to actually see all of the bids. You will be allowed to see what companies bid, and how they were scored by the prime contractor, but you will not see the bids. Seeing the bids is a central tenet of accountable government – but Mayor Chris Beutler threw that out the window when he selected Mortenson Construction to do the job.

That is neither transparent, nor accountable. But this JPA allowed it. Not only that, but the contractor did not properly advertise a recent meeting for potential subcontractors, and had to basically re-do the meeting.

But refusing to tell the public who caused the delay that will cost taxpayers $3.4 million? That’s a new low. Even more incredibly, my sources are telling me BNSF is probably most to blame for the delay.

So let me get this straight: BNSF’s contract allows it to charge the city for every dime it incurs above and beyond the $46 million we’re already paying them to move, and even if they cause a delay, they can charge the city for it. And if the city won’t pay, they can say, “Sorry well then we can’t get this done by your opening date.”

It’s like legalized blackmail.

I was always quite surprised by local officials’ promises for the past five years that BNSF was a very cooperative landowner. BNSF’s reputation precedes it, and it is not one of bending over backwards for cities that need a favor. But always, we were told, the railroad was playing ball. What Lincoln officials didn’t seem to get is that BNSF is in a whole different league – their bosses do not particularly care if you put a local 2015 Vision big shot on a plane and send him down to Texas to tell the BN bosses how it’s gonna be. (That actually happened.) They do not care if your local bigwig development attorney tries to tell them how things are going to be done.

Things will be done the way BN wants them done. Clearly.

A local newspaper columnist – who normally covers the Rainbows and Butterflies beat – recently opined that just because BNSF is demanding another $3.4 million, that doesn’t mean the project is over budget. Well, no the whole project isn’t over budget, but some line items are higher than expected. And if you’ve promised the citizenry you will come in “on time and under budget,” you start whacking things out of the budget to make up for the overruns.

Which is why city is now putting aluminum wiring in the arena, not copper, and not doing floor-to-ceiling tile in the restrooms and is scrapping, for now, those electronic signs that were supposed to guide people to the arena.

Yes, those signs were advertised as part of the project, but to make budget, they’re out for now. That’s how it’s done.

So… by my count, we are not getting transparency, we are not getting accountability, and we are cutting corners all over the place to keep this baby in budget. I could go for some rainbows and butterflies right now.

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