CEDAR RAPIDS — It brought a smile to Philip Harris’ face when he learned the new public health and youth development services building — named after his parents, Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris — would have a playground and gymnasium open to the neighborhood for use after business hours.
“I love that,” Harris said. “A lot of these buildings shut down at 5 o’clock, and making space available would be tremendous.”
Construction on the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris building on the corner of 10th Avenue SE and Seventh Street SE in Cedar Rapids is wrapping up, with Linn County Public Health and Child & Youth Development Services preparing to move operations there by mid-November.
Harris, 61, said he and his 11 siblings are “very excited” about the building, and it’s a “tremendous honor” for his family.
“We’re grateful and humbled the county chose to recognize my parents in this way,” Harris said. “They gave their heart and soul to the Cedar Rapids community. ... November cannot come soon enough.”
Lifelong Advocates for health and education
The Linn County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in May 2017 to name the building in honor of Dr. Percy Harris and his wife, Lileah Harris, in recognition of their dedication and service to health and education in the county.
Supervisor Ben Rogers, who was delivered by Percy Harris when he was born, said the building will provide services the Harrises spent their lives advocating.
Percy, the first black physician in Cedar Rapids, served as Linn County medical examiner for almost 40 years, as well as president of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the NAACP and chairman of the board of directors of the Jane Boyd Community House. He also served on St. Luke’s Hospital’s board and on the Iowa Board of Regents.
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Lileah was an advocate of lifelong learning and education. She also served on the board of the NAACP, was a member of the Cedar Rapids Human Rights Commission and served on the board of the Cedar Rapids Symphony Guild, now Orchestra Iowa.
Rogers said he is “thrilled” public health and youth development services will be co-located in the Harris building.
“It will serve a diverse population of people,” Rogers said. “As faith and opportunity have it, this building will house not only a school, but a place where people can receive medical — two main passions of Dr. Harris, medicine and education.”
Construction controversy over lease-purchase deal
In pursuing the building, the supervisors decided to bypass a traditional competitive bidding process and instead use a lease-purchase model. With a lease-purchase agreement, the board could select a contractor to construct the facility and then buy the building when complete at a predetermined price.
Supervisors said they used this model to ensure the work went to contractors based in or near Linn County.
The building was designed by OPN Architects, and the county’s agreement was with Rinderknecht Associates of Cedar Rapids.
Construction of the 63,000-square-foot facility was $28.1 million. Furnishings, consulting fees and miscellaneous costs are estimated to be an additional $3.1 million.
Partly in response to Linn County’s approach, the Iowa Legislature passed House File 2253, which was signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds. The law requires public bodies — cities, counties and state government, including the Board of Regents — to go through a competitive bidding process before awarding contracts for public projects, including lease-purchase deals.
Critics of no-bid lease-purchase agreements said they can allow public agencies to reward friends and campaign supporters and don’t guarantee taxpayers that the public agency got the best possible deal.
However, lease-purchase agreements minimize change orders that drive up construction costs, said Darrin Gage, county director of policy and administration.
Supervisors approved just two change orders for this project.
The first, for $456,519, was a change order for excavating. Gage said that while a geotechnical analysis of the site was done before construction began, crews upon excavating found that the dirt was unsuitable to bear the weight of the building. It was replaced with good subsoil, he said.
The second, for $511,535, covered miscellaneous items, Gage said.
The change orders were paid for with a $1 million contingency set aside for the project. They represented 3.3 percent of the total construction cost. A typical bid project has a contingency of 7 percent to 10 percent of the cost, Gage said.
“Three percent is remarkable,” he said.
Still, in the end, the project’s cost is closer to the $31.1 million that Rinderknecht Associates initially estimated, exceeding a $28.6 million price tag supervisors thought in April 2018 they had whittled it down to.
Gage said he expects departments to be finished moving in to the building by Nov. 11.
Move allows county to add more services
Pramod Dwivedi, Linn County’s public health director, said the new building is a blessing the department has been awaiting for a long time.
Linn County Public Health will be closed Nov. 6 and 7 as staff moves to the new office.
With the new facility, the public health department also will be opening a WIC Clinic with the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, Dwivedi said, focusing on supplemental food and nutrition education for women, infants and children.
“Nutrition is a part of public health,” he said. “It was missing from our programming here. Linn County agreed to have a joint location, so we are able to provide comprehensive service at one place.”
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The vacated public health building — now at 501 13th St. NW in Cedar Rapids — will be renovated into a mental health access center.
Rogers said it could be open as soon as the first quarter of next year.
The Fillmore Center, which is home to Child & Youth Development Services, will become an emergency winter shelter for people without homes or other accommodations. It was authorized in September by the supervisors to be an overflow shelter.
The county has long-term plans to turn half the Fillmore Center into a homeless services resource center with a permanent emergency winter overflow shelter and day center complete with Wi-Fi, a laundry room, a secure place for belongings and mailboxes.
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