A multimillion-dollar renovation of the Burlington County courthouse complex, focused on security enhancements, will cost nearly twice the original estimate, according to county documents obtained by The Inquirer.
The tab for the work, which was scheduled to begin this week, has grown to at least $9.4 million from the $4.8 million price tag put on it after it was announced in December 2012.
As the project evolved, "further safety and security concerns" were addressed and the cost rose "to reflect the additional work required," according to county spokesman Eric Arpert. But he said last week that a cost breakdown showing exactly what aspects of the project have caused its price to jump was unavailable.
According to the documents, received after invoking the state's open public records law, a commanding 1,974-square-foot glass-and-masonry entrance will be created at the complex and four current entrances will be eliminated in an effort to improve security.
An open courtyard between the seven-story courthouse in Mount Holly and the county administration building will be walled in. The installation of an escalator was a late add-on to the initial plans.
When the project was announced nearly two years ago, a Haddon Township architectural firm was awarded a $740,000 no-bid contract to design the improvements and help oversee the work. Officials said then that they expected the work to begin in the summer or fall of 2013.
Since then, county officials have said little publicly about the project, even when voting on measures related to it, leaving many of its details shrouded.
On June 11, without any public presentation, the county Board of Freeholders voted to approve "Resolution #2014-00238 Authorizing Award And/Or Rejection of Contracts."
They did not mention that the resolution included an $8.68 million contract for the courthouse project with Newport Construction Management Corp. of Pennsauken. The amount, coupled with the architect's fee, takes the project's cost to $9.4 million.
The freeholders did not offer any comment after the vote.
The agenda similarly was silent.
"The public didn't ask questions at the meeting," county spokesman Arpert said, noting that the board's vote was unanimous.
Freeholder Director Bruce Garganio, a Republican, who typically speaks for the board, did not return a call and an e-mail seeking his comment.
Amid voluminous documents released late last month after a formal records request, financial information was scant. A two-page "form of agreement" - signed July 9 by Newport's owner, Gregg Cooke, and county administrator Paul Drayton - noted the arrangement with the firm.
Cooke did not respond to a call for comment.
In an e-mail, Arpert said Newport was the lowest bidder. Financing for the project will be raised through bonds issued as part of the county's capital improvement budget, Arpert said.
As for the delay in starting work on the project, he said "the timeline for this project is not unusual for one of its scope." On Tuesday, excavators sat near the entrance to the county administration building.
A call placed to Lammey & Giorgio, the architects hired to design the project and review construction bids, also was not returned. In choosing Lammey, county freeholders cited its qualifications and prior work on a courthouse in Camden and elsewhere and they did not solicit prices from any other firm.
According to the minutes of the June meeting, the five-member freeholder board, consisting of three Republicans and two Democrats, voted 4-0 to authorize the construction work.
Freeholder Joanne Schwartz, a Democrat, was listed as absent, but she said in an interview last week that she had participated in the meeting via phone and was in favor of the renovation project.
"The biggest driver is, the courts are outdated and we need to have better security. There are a lot of crazies out there," Schwartz said. "Having one access point is good," she said, referring to the single point of entry that is planned.
Steven Stypinski, the county's construction manager, displayed blueprints and provided a short summary of the project during an interview last week.
"The courthouse was built in the '50s and we're not up to code," he said, referring to current security standards. Creating a single entranceway, by building an addition onto the front of the administration building off Rancocas Road, is the focal point of the project, he said.
Masonry walls, he said, will be draped around the courtyard so the public will be funneled to the single entranceway. Also, a network of closed-circuit monitors will be installed as a safety measure.
An escalator will travel through the middle part of the courtyard to help move along pedestrian traffic between the buildings, Stypinski said. Courthouse visitors will either walk all the way across the courtyard or take the escalator part of the way and then walk the remainder of the way, he said.
Other planned improvements include new bathrooms, lighting, ceilings, and a fire-alarm system. The parking lot around the buildings will be reconfigured and slightly expanded, Stypinski said.
Assignment Judge Ronald Bookbinder said he was pleased the work was beginning. "I think it will increase our security and provide more easy access for the public to come to court," he said.
The work is expected to be completed by October 2015.