County Engineers Can’t Estimate Their Way Out of a Paper Bag

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County supervisors were stunned this week when they saw the deal they’ve gotten on some storm drain work in Orange Park Acres.

The project’s actual costs are coming in at more than $500,000 under their own engineer’s estimate of $1.5 million to complete the job.

Yet when supervisors probed at why the savings are so large, they actually found out they’re not really saving any money at all. Their engineers’ estimates are just way, way off.

“We’re not claiming to save any money,” said Nadeem Majaj, assistant director of the county’s engineering department.

Majaj told supervisors the department has been frustrated because its engineers’ estimates for projects — which ultimately dictate the requests for proposals — have been consistently off in recent years.

In 2005 and 2006, the engineers figured too low. Majaj said low bids were coming in at 10 percent to 20 percent above the engineers’ estimates, largely because steel and concrete costs were higher.

Now, the engineers are off again in the other direction.

Given today’s economy, Majaj told supervisors that construction firms are so desperate to get jobs that they’ll bid on projects and even cut into their profit just to keep crews working.

That’s why the costs on the Orange Park Acres seem so low.

Tired of being so off so often, Majaj told supervisors that OC Public Works is now looking to hire a professional estimator and setting up an internal committee to review the matter.

And judging from Majaj’s response to what he sees in the future, you can tell why.

“This period is very unstable,” he said. “We think prices could start to come back up during the next six months. … They could come down.”

That prompted Supervisor Bill Campbell to chime in: “You sound like a stock broker.”

Given the loose estimates, Supervisor Pat Bates asked that the department prepare a list of change orders on public sector building projects spanning back a few years. Majaj said they would be back to the Board of Supervisors with a report in the next month.



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