I remember the first day I was introduced to people at city hall in 2004, I was pulled into a mayoral aide’s office and shown a bunch of maps on the wall of this thing called the Antelope Valley Project.
The aide was so excited about the project and tried to explain the gargantuan thing to me. It went right over my head. Antelope What? But over the years I became fascinated with the project — the largest public works project ever embarked upon in Lincoln.
And one day, I decided to see how well the organizers had lived up to their promises, as the project was coming together. It appeared nobody at the paper had ever really looked at whether the project was over budget, under budget or on budget.
We probably should have done so much sooner, because I discovered the project was costing much more than proponents and city officials had told people it would in the 1990s. And when I would ask around city hall about whether it was “on budget,” people looked at me like I was crazy. There really wasn’t a set-in-stone budget. Oh, sure, every year the City Council approved a certain amount of spending as part of the city’s entire budget and capital budget — but that little sliver of spending was often overlooked and almost never discussed at budget time.
This Sunday, the Journal Star did a nice update on Antelope Valley spending. I would have gone a step farther and compared what Antelope Valley promoters promised to what actually happened.
Let’s do that here.
• We were told Lincoln would only have to kick in about $35 million in local dollars. Lincoln has contributed $91 million (I’m including $14 million in Railroad Transportation Safety District dollars), with the city pouring water, wastewater, wheel tax and general funds in recent years to pay the bills. The city even borrowed against future keno revenue. The city diverted so much wheel tax revenue into the project that it could only afford to resurface one nine-block stretch arterial roadway between 2004 and 2008. Even more wheel taxes have gone into the project since 2008.
• Depending upon whether you consider NRD money local, the Lower Platte Natural Resources District (you pay a tax to fund them) kicked in $24 million, bringing the total “local” figure even higher, to $115 million.
• We were told the project would cost a total of $175 million (with a little footnote that said “in 1999 dollars”), and $225 million if we did a second phase. It will actually cost $246 million when it’s done, and Mayor Chris Beutler decreed after my 2008 story came out that there would be no phase two.
When I looked into the project in 2008, I was literally handed boxes and boxes of invoices and receipts to pour over in an office of an engineering firm, Olsson Associates (where the former Antelope Valley coordinator actually had an office). Of all the bills, I was most surprised to see that the city had paid Lincoln attorney Kent Seacrest — who had lobbied hard for the project — more than $2 million. He charged the city the highest rate of any subcontractor, at $280 an hour, for “guiding the project” and “gathering public input” — even guiding bus tours of the project.
The other bill that most caught my eye was $250,000 that Lincoln consultant Rick Wallace had earned for being a “community liaison” to nearby neighborhoods and minorities. His billings showed he spent much of his time working on getting an assisted living center that caters to Asians built near Antelope Valley. But after years of work, they had not even settled on a location.
I recently asked the city’s new Antelope Valley coordinator about the status of those two contracts. I learned that after that 2008 story came out, Seacrest’s law firm earned another roughly $90,000 the following year before asking to withdraw from representing the Joint Antelope Valley Authority because “the planning activities they were involved with were fundamentally complete.”
As for Wallace, he earned another $14,000, even though the Asian Center never did get off the ground.
“Unfortunately, the primary conduit for this project is no longer in Lincoln: she left the city to care for her own elderly family members and the project did not go forward,” Antelope Valley coordinator Kris Humphrey said in an email.
All of which makes you wonder how well the city will do with an even bigger public works project, a $340 million whopper of an arena development, it is set to break ground on next month.