News 13 investigation uncovers $1.6M APS blunder

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – An Albuquerque Public Schools board member says the evidence is in, and it’s clear: $1.6 million was wasted by APS.

Here’s the bottom line, as revealed through a KRQE News 13 investigation: APS paid an architect all those tax dollars to design a building that will never be built.

News 13 asked APS Chief Operations Officer Brad Winter whether that was what took place. His reply: “Absolutely right.”

APS Storage Rendering
APS Storage Rendering

It was supposed to be a state-of-the-art, energy efficient, food and nutrition warehouse. It was to be a massive structure, designed to modernize and consolidate all food preparation and storage for APS, which currently prepares 65,000 meals every day in an old, inefficient and outdated building.

APS assembled a team of the best and brightest to put together a plan for a new food preparation complex. The district even hired an architectural consulting firm to lend a hand.

APS decided to build its new warehouse in the Southeast Heights on land already owned by the district. There would be commercial kitchens, dry storage, cold storage and freezers — all in one building.

In 2008, the school board gave the project a green light and Albuquerque architect Claudio Vigil was hired to design the project. Over the course of the next four years, Vigil produced reams of technical drawings.

APS Storage Rendering
APS Storage Rendering

Once constructed, the two-story, 108,000-square-foot commercial structure would look something like a digital rendering created for News 13. It would not only be functional, but energy efficient as well. APS announced that the multi-million-dollar complex would open for business in 2011.

That was three years ago.

Today, the building site is still vacant. And the construction project? It never happened. Today, all APS has to show for the expenditure is a table full of architectural drawings.

Planned site of APS Storage (Google Map)
Planned site of APS Storage (Google Map)

For perspective: the $1.6 million would have been enough money to fund the operation of Atrisco Elementary School for an entire school year.

News 13 asked Winter whether APS or the architect was at fault for the waste.

“It could be a little bit of both,” he said.

Korte was elected to the school board in 2011.

“APS cannot afford to throw away a penny, either capital or operational monies,” she said. “We can’t afford it.”

How did APS end up literally throwing away all that money?

News 13 has learned the answers: Remember the roomful of experts who planned the building? After carefully computing construction costs, APS directed the architect to design a $12.5 million food and nutrition warehouse. But instead of designing a $12.5 million project, Vigil turned in plans for a $24 million building.

Jaws dropped at APS.

“We have good experts,” Winter said, but he added that, “at the very beginning,” the budget wasn’t realistic.

So APS raised the budget to $20 million and told the architect to try again. However, Vigil’s second set of plans were still millions of dollars over budget.

“It came back at $23 million,” Winter said. “That was still not acceptable to us.”

APS decided to change directions. Officials scrapped plans for a new building and decided that perhaps the old facility wasn’t so bad after all.

APS sent Vigil back to the drawing board for a third time to design a renovation of the existing kitchen and storage warehouse. But that project, too, was doomed.

Just a few months after directing the architect to work up plans for the existing building, APS did a 180-degree turn. Planners decided to buy the old K-mart building on Lomas, renovate it and move all the food preparation and storage to the Heights.

The $1.6 million architectural drawings were tossed aside. Vigil was dismissed, and a new architect was hired.

The K-mart building purchase and renovation will cost taxpayers $11 million.

The way APS figures it, the district actually is saving money: Officials were going to spend $20 million for a new building. However, by spending only $11 million on the K-mart building, taxpayers will realize a $9 million savings.

Call it Fuzzy Math 101.

“We’re still saving $9 million of the taxpayer money instead of building this building,” Winter said. “It took us a little more money, but in the overall end, it saved a lot of money. When you are saving $9 million of the taxpayers money. It’s not a little bit of money, but when we’re saving a lot of money … It was the right thing to do.”

By the time you add it all up, Vigil, the architect, invoiced APS $1.6 million for designs that were never used. What does he have to say about all this? Nothing — he didn’t respond to News 13’s repeated requests for comment.

“I don’t know who’s fault it was,” Winter said. “It could have been everybody — that we were planning a building we weren’t sure of.”

School board member Korte added: “We really we can’t waste a penny. I’ve got schools on the West side that are waiting to be renovated. So $1.6 million that’s lost on this project means $1.6 million less for other projects.”

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