County manager says jail kitchen renovation botched from start

By Robin Fornoff
CMI Projects Editor

Work resumed Monday after a more than two-week delay on the long-awaited Curry County jail kitchen renovation, a costly project County Manager Lance Pyle said was botched from the start.

Pyle blames former county Facilities Manager Joe Wright.

Wright, who describes himself as a disgruntled former employee, blames Pyle.

And there is the beginning of a he-said, he-said tale full of contradictions from all sides. Meanwhile, the cost of the renovation has ballooned from the original projected $300,000 to almost $500,000 and may continue to escalate, Pyle said.

• • •

It all started July 18, when state building inspectors showed up unannounced two weeks into the demolition or tear-out phase of the project and stopped all work.

Someone blew the whistle on the county and winning bidder Two Horse Construction for not getting building permits required by state law.

Pyle said he was told by inspectors that they were tipped of the infraction by “an anonymous caller.” Wright admits he did it shortly after resigning as facilities manager.

Wright said he dropped a dime on the county because Pyle and everyone else knew they needed permits but chose not to get them. He said Pyle did it to save money because the state wouldn’t issue permits without plans and drawings signed and stamped certified by a licensed architect — a prospect that would add another $8,000 to the price tag.

Pyle denies the allegation and a list of other grievances from Wright.

This much is fact: The county didn’t obtain the certified drawings until last week. Pyle, unlike the president of Two Horse Construction, acknowledged the county didn’t hire an architect and apply for permits until after building inspectors stopped work and plastered cease and desist posters on the jail walls.

Two Horse Construction President Wayne Petner said the county was waiting for permits when the state stopped the work. Petner said his company didn’t need permits to start demolition, only to proceed with the remodeling or building phase.

Pyle said Petner’s explanation just isn’t true. Pyle said he authorized the project to start July 5 after he was assured by Wright that Petner would take care of getting permits from the city.

The city, however, can’t issue such permits. Clovis Building Director Pete Wilt said it is a law that only the state can issue building permits for work at public buildings. He keeps a copy of the law at arm’s length in his cramped office at city hall. He has it marked with colored highlighter.

Wilt did write a letter to Pyle on June 6 saying he didn’t think a permit would be necessary. The letter is dated the same day Pyle shot an email off to Wright. It criticizes Wright for not letting the county know until after bids were opened that an architect and certified drawings would be needed.

Wright responded the same day that he had said numerous times in meetings prior to the bid opening that an architect and certified drawings would be needed to get building permits.

Pyle now says he gave the go ahead for work to proceed several weeks later after he was assured by Wright that Petner was in the process of obtaining permits from the city — permits the city couldn’t issue by state law and couldn’t be obtained without architect drawings.

The $431,000 winning bid submitted by Two Horse specifies the company, not the county, was to obtain all applicable permits.

• • •

But perhaps the strangest twist in this tale is what happened next.

Wright said he became so disenchanted with political pressure to get the project started, he resigned. His resignation is dated June 21— a Friday. The following Monday, according to Pyle, Wright showed up at the jail kitchen worksite as an employee of Two Horse Construction.

The renovation was Wright’s idea. Wright researched it, wrote the bid specifications and walked Two Horse and other prospective bidders through the plan.

Pyle immediately directed County Attorney Steve Doerr to inform Petner that Two Horse was in violation of state law and county ethics rules — thus in danger of losing the contract — by hiring Wright.

Wright denies ever being a Two Horse employee. He and Petner say he was only getting paid for a one-time job — to do some welding on a door inside the kitchen.

In response to a letter from Doerr, Petner said Wright wasn’t a Two Horse employee and wouldn’t be involved in the kitchen renovation.

• • •

There has never been a question of whether the kitchen should be fixed, but when. State environmental inspectors cited the county more than a year ago with numerous major health and safety violations. The then-acting chief of the state department threatened to shut down the kitchen — which serves more than 600 meals daily — unless the county made a serious commitment to fix it.

Former jail Administrator Gerry Billy was fired earlier this year shortly after proposing a $4 million fix that included renovation and expansion of the kitchen and laundry facilities.

Billy has filed a wrongful discharge lawsuit against the county in federal court.

Wright said part of the “political push” to get the kitchen renovation started and finished without required permits was due to the lawsuit.

Commissioners rejected Billy’s plans, instead approving the plan pitched by Wright.

“I told Lance repeatedly that he needed to hire an architect or engineer,” said Wright. “Lance kept saying I never told the commissioners we would need an architect.

“There was pressure,” Wright said. “After talking to Doerr, it became clear the pressure was about Mr. Billy’s lawsuit.”

• • •

The project has now ballooned to $477,000, including $16,000 paid to kitchen design consultant Masterplan Food Services of Dallas and another $8,000 to an Albuquerque architect firm to complete the stamped drawings necessary to get required state permits. Those figures don’t include the $225 a day the county is paying American Legion Post 117 for use of their kitchen to prepare inmate meals.

Petner said he can finish the project by Aug. 31. If he doesn’t, the county’s contract imposes a $250 a day liquidated damages fine for each day it takes to finish the renovation.

Pyle said the county is prepared to invoke the liquidated damages clause.