Government

Bill would curb Iowa regents construction options

Critics say design-build process leads to favoritism

The 12-story, $95 million Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall at the University of Iowa was built using a technique a state legislator is seeking to outlaw. Under the design-build process, a single contract is awarded for both design and construction of a facility. Supporters say the process can speed work and save money. Critics say it can led to favoritism and unwise use of tax money. People walk down the steps of Catlett Residence Hall, above, on July 28, 2017. (KC McGinnis / For The Gazette)
The 12-story, $95 million Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall at the University of Iowa was built using a technique a state legislator is seeking to outlaw. Under the design-build process, a single contract is awarded for both design and construction of a facility. Supporters say the process can speed work and save money. Critics say it can led to favoritism and unwise use of tax money. People walk down the steps of Catlett Residence Hall, above, on July 28, 2017. (KC McGinnis / For The Gazette)

A lawmaker who says he’s “on a war path” against public entities sidestepping typical competitive bidding rules is adding the Board of Regents to his list of targets, proposing to change the way Iowa’s public universities pursue large capital projects.

The bill — backed by Rep. Jake Highfill, R-Johnston, chairman of the House Local Government Committee — would change the regents’ process by expanding advertising requirements, requiring an engineer or architect to prepare plans and cost estimates, and “identify a specific reason” for rejecting bids if the board determines none are acceptable.

The goal, according to Highfill, is to ensure transparency and curtail favoritism within government bodies that receive taxpayer dollars. Among other things, the bill wold end the “design-build” construction method that regent universities have been using lately. That process allows them to award a single contract to one company for both design and construction.

Supporters say the method can cut costs and increase speed. Opponents say it limits competition and is an inappropriate way to spend public dollars.

“I don’t believe in design-build,” Highfill said. “I don’t think (the Board of Regents) has authority to do it now.”

The board says it is exempt from a portion of Iowa Code regulating competitive bidding for public improvement projects. That law mandates boards and commissions follow a “design-bid-build” process, which requires an engineer or architect to prepare plans, estimate costs and then advertise them to bidders.

Operating under a separate section of state code, the regents are allowed to reject bids they find unacceptable, choosing instead to proceed in a different way.

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Some lawmakers, including Highfill, think the board’s use of design-build already is in violation of the law. For years, the board tried to change the law to explicitly allow public universities to use alternative building methods, until deciding in 2012 they’re already able to use design-build under current law.

Projects the universities have erected through design-build include an $11.8 million addition to the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex on the UI campus, along with its 12-story, $95 million Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall. Iowa State University has used design-build for a $49.5 million resident hall.

But Highfill argues the method lets institutions skirt open bidding and “pick their friends and political allies.”

Regents spokesman Josh Lehman said the board opposes the bill.

“The board has successfully utilized alternative delivery construction methods such as design-build in the past,” Lehman said. “We believe strongly that these methods used for appropriate projects can deliver these projects more efficiently, thus saving students and taxpayers significant dollars.”

The proposed legislation curbing regent building options jibes with another proposed bill Highfill is backing to change a seldom-used law allowing local governments to have a developer build a project to its specifications and then buy the building at a predetermined price.

Linn County used the provision recently to invite only seven contractors to make pitches for a new public health building in Cedar Rapids.

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