The Public Building Authority's Maintenance Mode

Hard economic times put the brakes on public building plans

With the city's $30 million transit center now completed, there are scarcely any new city or county public building projects anywhere in prospect. Hence, it becomes less readily apparent what justifies continuation of the Public Building Authority's $11 million annual operating budget.

Perhaps that helps explain why a call for a "top-down review" of PBA was one of new County Mayor Tim Burchett's campaign themes. When asked why PBA was singled out, Burchett now says, "We're going to be looking at every county department's budget, line item by line item, and if there are any questions we'll address them in a public meeting."

The PBA isn't a county department, but it's accountable to both the county and the city for functions performed on behalf of each of them. These start with maintenance of the City County Building, which the PBA was created to build in 1971 and has nominally owned ever since.

Custodial, maintenance and security costs for that 500,000-square-foot building alone account for about $4 million of the PBA's total budget—with $2.9 million allocated to the county and $1.1 million allocated to the city based on their respective use of space. A big reason the county's share runs so much higher is that it includes a jail and all of the county's courts, which have special security requirements.

County Finance Director John Troyer and his city counterpart Jim York have long been doing what Burchett says he's now going to undertake by way of budgetary oversight at regular monthly meetings with the PBA's CEO Dale Smith.

"The more somebody really understands what we do and what we're being asked to do with our budget, the better off we are," Smith says. The same holds for the long list of other facilities that PBA manages, including the county-owned Andrew Johnson Building, its Old Court House, the Juvenile Justice Center, senior centers, and the Dwight Kessel Garage as well as, on the city side, all four of its downtown garages, the World's Fair Park, and Volunteer Landing.

The 57-year-old Smith is also accountable to an 11-member board of directors—six appointed by the county mayor and five by the city mayor. The board selected Smith to take the helm 10 years ago after a national search and based upon his impressive performance managing the extensive property holdings of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Palm Beach County, Florida.

At the time, both the city and the county were looking to the PBA to give direction to unprecedented public building challenges posed by impending construction of the city's $93 million new convention center, close to $50 million in related enhancements to the World's Fair Park, and the county's controversial plan for a $90 million new "justice center," which got scuttled. Since then, it's served as project manager for construction of the East Tennessee History Center, the Regal Riviera Cinema, Hardin Valley Academy High School, Powell Middle School, and Knoxville Station Transit Center, as well as a number of senior centers and branch libraries. So Smith can proudly boast that, "Since 2000 PBA has managed and completed approximately $500 million in construction projects for Knoxville and Knox County, all having been completed on time and within budget."

But hard economic times have put the brakes on any further public building plans (except for a few school projects that the school system wants to keep under its own administrative wing). Smith now faces the challenge of what to do with the man whom he's long entrusted with project management responsibilities, Jeff Galyon, and an aide. "That's an issue we've been very open in negotiations with the city and the county, showing them here's what it would take to keep them engaged though the transition and see what the new mayors have in mind, and then we'll know what capacity to keep," Smith says

Meanwhile, all but a handful of PBA's 115 employees remain engaged in existing property management under the direction of Jayne Burritt, whom Smith recruited three years ago from her previous position as facilities manager for First Tennessee Bank. The city's chief administrative officer Larry Martin says, "We're generally very pleased with PBA's work," and the city has neither given any thought to outsourcing it nor been approached by any firm seeking to bid on any of it.

Beyond the City County Building, the biggest single component by far is management of the World's Fair Park, for which the city pays $1.5 million a year. Smith stresses that, "We don't just pick up trash at the park. We run a super-complicated set of pump systems and water fixtures, and we have a person who manages all the special events that take place down there."

On the other hand, at least one budget-squeezed county department—namely, the library system—became convinced that it could save money by outsourcing PBA's services and has proceeded to do so. Erstwhile Library Director Larry Frank claimed savings of $380,000 by contracting out grounds and buildings maintenance and security under his own supervision. And Burchett alluded to these savings in his call for a top-down review of PBA.

But while they decline to comment for publication, the people who run the East Tennessee History Center and the library system's McClung Collection are known to be dissatisfied with the service they've been getting. With insistence on anonymity, one longtime director of the East Tennessee Historical Society, which oversees and helps fund the history center, is furious. "The buildings has been left unlocked and we had a leak that went undetected for two days and were very lucky that it didn't damage valuable artifacts...We loved the PBA people and wish we had them back."

Since taking office Burchett has called for keeping branch libraries open longer hours after concluding reductions Frank had made didn't produce purported savings. Perhaps he'll find that dispensing with the PBA's services was a false economy as well.