Developer: Why Is Great Falls Tax Money Leaving Great Falls?

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Great Falls School Bond
Great Falls High School/Creative Commons

I’m a long-time resident of Great Falls and a developer. Like a lot of folks, I’ve invested a lot of time and money into seeing our community thrive — in particular, downtown Great Falls. As a commercial developer, I pay my share of taxes, and so I tend to pay attention to where our money goes.

So, I was more than a little surprised when the Great Falls Public Schools District chose an out-of-town architect with an out-of-state partner to complete their $37 million upgrade project for Great Falls High School. That $37 million was raised through as part of a $98 million bond, voted on by local taxpayers. One thing I recall that was said often by the School District was that they would ensure that design and construction would go to local firms whenever possible. That was part of their selling point to the community on this bond issue.

When that did not happen, I started asking around.

The School District hired NE45, a Bozeman firm that has had one licensed architect for years and looks like they just hired a second. In addition, they partnered with a Seattle, Washington-based firm to win the project. There goes our taxpayer money to people who have not invested into this community. Another thing, a firm this small will have to outsource most of the project to their out-of-state partner firm to even get it done, and that will take most of the money out of state as well as drive up project design costs.

I talked to a couple of the local, competing architects. They said the other firm was chosen because of their expertise with historical buildings. Give me a break! That’s all we’ve got in Great Falls! I’ve done my fair share of remodels on my own projects; some were historical. This project, from what I can tell from the proposal, is basically going to be a messy remodel and addition, with phased, occupied construction along with some historical components. All the Great Falls firms have proven experience in this type of project.

I think the community and the local taxpayers deserve some straight answers on this. I am a quiet guy, I work hard and I don’t stir the pot. But this one really has me fired up.

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Steve is a contractor, developer, and Vietnam combat veteran. He owns the Dunn-Brown Building in downtown Great Falls.

1 COMMENT

  1. I agree. It appears very odd and there’s lots of unanswered questions. I couldn’t find the architectural firms’ bids posted on the district’s website. Aren’t those bids supposed to be public information? Don’t we, as the taxpayers footing the bill for this, get to see the supposed “expertise” that’s costing us so much money.

    I’ve looked at the evaluation criteria in the RFP for Great Falls High architectural services and it seems local firms would score higher than one from Bozeman. But “seems” is the operative word. Here’s the RFP for the curious: http://gfps.k12.mt.us/sites/default/files/Great%20Falls%20High%20AE%20RFQ%20draft%20TL%20edits.pdf

    One of the selection criteria is “Experience with projects of similar size and scope in this region 35%.” Our region is Central Montana, which isn’t the region Bozeman is in. That criteria alone is supposed to carry over one-third of the weight, which would appear to favor a local rather than a Bozeman firm. And as Steve stated, we have plenty of experience right here in Great Falls with historic buildings. Other criteria include “Local professional resources to be utilized for this effort 10%”; again that would appear to favor a local firm. Given what the district promised taxpayers before the bond vote about local whenever possible, shouldn’t that criteria be weighted even higher than 10%?

    Another criteria is “Recent and current work for Great Falls Public Schools 5%.” I don’t remember NE45 ever completing a project for Great Falls Public Schools. But I couldn’t even find portfolio of their projects posted on their website, so it’s hard to know what work they have done. This is the first architectural firm I’ve come across with no online portfolio. What’s up with that?

    What were the final evaluation scores for the architectural firms? Where and when were those scores released to the public? According to the RFP, a notice to the public of rankings was supposed to be released on October 6, 2017. But that’s the same date, according to GFPS website, that the school board voted on and selected the winning bidders. Wow, great opportunity for the public to comment on the scores–not!

    Transparency and accountability–I think the Great Falls Public Schools needs more of it.

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