Nearly $47 million in cost overruns, expensive redesigns and disputes with contractors have brought work to a standstill on a new family and matrimonial courthouse in Mineola — Nassau’s largest public works project since the Nassau Coliseum was built in 1971.
The project to renovate the former county social services building was expected to cost $168 million when plans were finalized with the state in 2013, county records show.
Now, the estimated cost is $214.6 million, County Executive Laura Curran said in a letter in January to the state Unified Court System.
"The project is now budgeted at $214.6M, compared to the $168M estimate contained in our 2013 Court Facilities Capital Plan Amendment."Nassau County Executive Laura Curran's letter to the state Unified Court System See full document
Construction on the project began in 2014, and county officials had hoped to open the new 255,000-square-foot building in late 2021 on Nassau's sprawling court campus in Mineola.
But construction largely is at a standstill as the county seeks legislative approval for the project's final major contract — an $85.6 million agreement with E & A Restoration, Inc. to construct the interior of the building.
A legislative committee tabled the contract last Monday after the county inspector general raised questions about whether E & A had complied with county requirements for company principals to disclose their campaign contributions to candidates for office.
E & A officials said they had not intended to deceive the county, and subsequently amended their filings.
County officials say once the contract is approved, the job will take about 18 months to complete.
Nassau County Legis. Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), the presiding officer, said it was "deeply concerning and upsetting to me" that the courthouse project "has taken this long. It’s taken 6 and a half years now, 7 years. They have built skyscrapers in Manhattan, they have finished most of Hudson Yards in that time period, and you’re talking about a two-story building.”
Brian Schneider, Curran's deputy county executive for parks and public works, conceded the delays that have occurred over two county administrations.
But he said Curran administration officials are "very attuned to the length of time that it’s taken to get to this point, and there's a commitment to make sure that this project is completed within 18 months.”
Schneider continued, "There's definitely a big push to get it done. It's been an embarrassment to be honest."
New facilities for the Family and Matrimonial courts were conceived in the early 2000s. Officials now envision a state-of-the-art facility to replace the aging Family Court building in Westbury, and also to handle matrimonial cases that are heard at the Matrimonial Center on the courts campus in Mineola.
The goal was to house the Family and Matrimonial courts in one building, as aspects of many cases straddle both courts.
Nassau Family Court had 18,411 cases filed last year, compared with 17,822 in 2018; Matrimonial had 3,058, compared with 2,717 in 2018, records show.
Curran said in an interview that the courthouse project represented, “a stark symbol of stagnation" in Nassau County.
Nassau spent $76.2 million between 2004 and early 2019 to demolish much of the former Social Services Department building at 101 County Seat Dr. and erect a facade for what will become the new Family and Matrimonial Court.
The project involves a complete retrofit of the building, which has been empty since 2005.
Curran called it “so important for our self-respect as a county to move forward on this project."
"Yes. It’s important for the attorneys and the judges," said Curran, a Democrat who took office in 2018, after substantial work had been done.
But "these cases that come in here are domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, the victims of human trafficking," she said. "These are the most vulnerable victims, and we want to make sure that we have a facility that serves them and does justice.”
- Nassau County has already spent $76.2 million to demolish much of its former Social Services Department Building at 101 County Seat Drive in Mineola, and erect a façade for the new Family and Matrimonial Center.
- MPCC Corp., a New Rochelle-based company that had the construction contract for Phase I, was initially hired under a $49.37 million county contract. But unforeseen expenses, added through 56 "change orders"worth $11.2 million, increased what the total that they are authorized to be paid to $60.56 million.
- The change orders and adjustments to contracts drove the total price tag of Phase One from $63.6 million to $86.795 million, an increase of $23.2 million, or 36%.
Numerous work change orders and design flaws contributed to the construction delays, according to records and interviews with county officials who were involved at various stages of the project.
For instance, 56 orders stemmed from design issues and "unanticipated field conditions" that required plan revisions.
Those orders, which affected the main construction contractor, MPCC Corp., of New Rochelle, generated new construction plans and equipment purchases that drove up costs and caused construction delays.
The unanticipated problems included:
- Discovery of asbestos in areas that were inaccessible before construction work started.
- Severely corroded steel columns at the edge of the building that had to be repaired using reinforced steel plates.
- Electrical systems that were vandalized extensively while the building was vacant. Temporary electrical service had to be installed so that construction work could continue.
Another redesign relocated seismic braces to the courtyard facades, requiring existing facades to be removed and replaced.
The largest change order, for a complete redesign and replacement of courtyard facades to accommodate a larger HVAC system, cost Nassau $2.05 million.
Change orders allow the county to pay for work or cover costs not specified in the original contract with the vendor.
In an interview, Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman said the change orders and other adjustments "that took place over a long period of time, going back many years now, add up to ultimately a 36 percent increase in the total project costs."
Schnirman continued, “That’s a big increase that ought to catch all of our attention. Is this something that obviously should have been included in the project from the start, or is this a reasonable amendment made due to field conditions?”
"Original total: $63,637,438.44
CO &amended totals: $23,158,434.25
Grand total: $86,795,872.69"
Such issues date to the project's inception in 2010, when former Republican County Executive Edward Mangano decided to renovate the old Social Services building for use as a new courthouse, instead of knocking it down and building a new structure.
County officials said they were concerned that if they sought to build a new courthouse, the Village of Garden City would object. The village would have had to approve zoning variances for construction of a new building.
- The plan to build the inside of the Matrimonial and Family Court, with new courtrooms, conference rooms, and other furnishings, is on hold until the County Legislature approves an $85.6 million contract with E&A Restoration Inc., a Syosset-based construction company.
- Phase II is expected to cost a total of $139 million.
- The total cost covers furniture, and technology -- such as custom equipment, hardware, computers, phone systems, and telecom line connections to other court complexes. Other costs include architect and engineering fees, permits and legal fees, and The Family Justice Center, a roughly $10 million total expense.
“While we thought we were saving money by doing this, also at the end of the day it became as expensive as taking the building down,” said Nassau Public Works Commissioner Ken Arnold.
With all the subsequent design and construction problems, “in retrospect, we should have taken the building down and just did our lumps through the village and did our battle there,” said Arnold, who served as assistant public works commissioner under Mangano.
Construction work on the building began in 2014.
But in 2018, shortly after Curran took office, administration officials decided to reverse a Mangano-era decision to leave part of the courthouse building as unfinished “gray space.”
From undeveloped "Gray Space" to "Family Justice Center," or "Phase 3"
- When the project was initially conceived, county officials planned to leave a 13,000-square-foot dug-out auditorium in the former building as undeveloped "gray space." But later, county officials revised the plan to develop the space into a new "Family Justice Center," where government services will be available for crime victims.
- The county is planning to seek bids for construction, and work on the center would occur while the rest of the building's interior being built out.
- The total cost to the county is expected to be $10 million, but that's not only for construction costs. The estimate includes costs for furniture, design plans, and technology expenses.
- The Nassau County Family Justice Center would make available staff from various county agencies, including the District Attorney's and Police Department, to serve victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, and elder and child abuse. Staff would be on hand to provide counseling, self-sufficiency and government services, and help with divorce, custody and visitation issues. Children can play in a secure area cordoned off from the public while meetings are in session.
Curran designated the 13,000-square-foot space — an auditorium on the basement level and first floor that never was completed — for a new “Family Justice Center” to assist victims of domestic violence.
The decision is expected to add $10 million to the overall cost of the courthouse project.
Schneider said it made “no sense” to leave part of a new building unrenovated.
“You’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a brand-new building that’s not complete,” he said. “You’re not going to leave a separate space," with the idea that, ‘Oh, we’ll come back to it later.’ "
County officials also said it would have been difficult — and likely more expensive — to build out the space after the courthouse was open.
If the county had to “go back and fix it later, it would be nighttime, overtime work, it’d be a nightmare," Arnold said. "You cannot do work in an active court building during regular hours.”
Original plans for the courthouse project had called for the renovation to occur in two stages.
The first phase — demolition of everything except the building’s floors and steel columns, and construction of a new facade — was expected to cost $63.6 million.
The contractors were: MPCC Corp., which was to be paid $49.37 million; Perkins Eastman, a Manhattan-based architectural design firm, which was to get $5.425 million; The LiRo Group, of Mineola, $5.1 million; Spector Group of Woodbury, $3.525 million; and JE Architects, $200,0000.
So far, the county is due to pay those companies $86.795 million.
Of that, MPCC, which had the main construction contract to demolish the building and erect a facade, has been paid more than $57 million of the $60.6 million it is due.
MPCC's costs grew as it responded to the 56 change orders from the county, according to the county and the company.
"…the County intends to use MPCC as a scapegoat to place blame for its delays ... MPCC has consistently performed on the project in the best interests of the County despite the blatant disregard and abandonment of the original contract design. As a result, these actions have caused millions of dollars' worth of delays to our company and subcontractors."The main construction contractor MPCC Corp.'s letter to Nassau County See full document
Both parties have traded blame over the delays and cost increases.
In 2015, MPCC senior project manager Alex Cardinale said Nassau's "abandonment of the original contract drawings has prevented MPCC from performing its work, and has delayed the project."
In a letter to then-county Public Works Commissioner Shila Shah-Gavnoudias, Cardinale warned that MPCC would be "exposed to additional costs" for materials, wage rate increases, insurance and other expenses "due to these delays."
In 2017, MPCC senior project manager Louis Calicchia expressed concern in a letter to Shah-Gavnoudias that Nassau intended, "to use MPCC as a scapegoat to place blame for its delays. This assessment is certainly not in the best interest of the project and is merely self-serving."
MPCC "has consistently performed on the project in the best interests of the County despite the blatant disregard and abandonment of the original contract design," Calicchia wrote. "As a result, these actions have caused millions of dollars' worth of delays to our company and subcontractors."
Curran administration officials said they could not locate the county's responses to those letters.
But county spokesman Mike Fricchione said last week that Nassau was "focused on finishing a building that should have been built over a decade ago. The clear shortcomings of the prior administration on managing construction have left some of the most vulnerable residents who need access to Family Court with a dilapidated building for too long. … ”
Administration officials also stressed that most of the change orders were approved before Curran took office.
The second phase of the courthouse project involves building out the interior of the building, at a cost of $139 million. That figure covers the $85.6 million contract, $10 million for the Family Justice Center and other expenses for furniture and technology.
County officials say they hope both the overall interior renovation and construction of the Family Justice Center can be done concurrently, so that the courthouse can open at the end of 2021.
Officials say the need for the new Family and Matrimonial courthouse is urgent.
Family Court in Westbury, built in 1960, is overcrowded and in disrepair, and represents the most urgent problem, officials say.
On a recent Wednesday morning, about 10 a.m., lawyers conferenced with clients in narrow hallways, finding small corners — even stairwells — to hold private conversations.
The courthouse, originally had only two courtrooms. But space has been carved out for six more judges, six support magistrates and four referees who work in two courtrooms and smaller office-sized rooms.
Concern about the Family Court building dates back years.
Former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, sought to upgrade the Family Court, proposing a $75 million renovation and expansion in 2007.
The county hoped to sell the vacant property to a developer for luxury housing; at one point, Suozzi placed a generic red "For Sale by Owner" sign outside the old Social Services building.
But housing advocates filed a federal lawsuit, saying the plan discriminated against minorities. (In 2013, a judge ruled that rezoning by the Village of Garden City disproportionately impacted minorities and "tended to perpetuate segregation" in Garden City, court records show).
In 2010, Mangano killed Suozzi's renovation plan. Instead, Mangano proposed a new courthouse for the Family and Matrimonial courts by retrofitting the old Social Services building.
The Nassau County Bar Association backed the plan.
“They’re all intimately and intricately involved. You could find the same families in Family Court, in the Matrimonial Center,” said Patricia Miller Latzman, an attorney for children and a former chairwoman of the Nassau bar’s Family Law and Procedure Committee.
But Nicolello, the presiding officer and an attorney, is one of many who are growing impatient with the progress of the new courthouse.
He said that often when he looked at the incomplete project while walking into the state Supreme Court building across the street, "there were large amounts of time where absolutely nothing was going on. The skeleton of the building would be there, and it would stay there for weeks, months. … It’s reached a phase where nothing’s happening."
Curran said she hopes construction can resume "right away."
The Family courthouse has "been a mess for many, many years," Curran said, and "it’s time to move forward into the future.”