AMED board member wants documentation on project

Expanded scope of building plan draws concern

AMED’s construction work in Lakemont is well underway, but board member Dave Cowger remained a little nervous recently about the scope of a project that began as a potential $110,000 addition to the Lakemont firehouse and grew to what will become the $3.4 million organizational headquarters, with attached substation.

Accordingly, Cowger asked officials at a recent board meeting to consider documenting the rationale for the decisions that led to the growth of the effort, in case those decisions are questioned later.

It’s a matter of protecting his legacy as a board member, especially if the health care situation in the U.S. changes in a way that invalidates presumptions made by the ambulance authority in deciding to transform a subsidiary location annexed to another organization’s property into AMED’s primary location, with space for training a new generation of ambulance workers — along with ground for building of a maintenance garage to eliminate the need to farm out ambulance repairs.

Cowger brought up the matter after a presentation of the 2018 audit, asking the auditors whether a “management discussion and analysis” should have documented the decisions that led to the current project.

While such a component is generally not included in an audit for an organization of AMED’s size, it could easily become the subject of an in-house report at the end of the year, officials indicated.

Cowger wants to ensure that future potential critics can see that the board acted with “fiscal responsibility,” he said after the meeting.

He doesn’t want them asking, ‘“What were these guys thinking?'” he said.

He’d like to see details of management discussions, the angles considered by the board, what was planned, what really happened and what the board thought “may happen down the line,” he said.

“I’d like to have it in writing somewhere,” he said.

“Dave Cowger wants people to know (the board members) did their due diligence,” said AMED Executive Director Gary Watters.

The project grew out of plans by the Lakemont Volunteer Fire Co., where AMED rented a bay for its Lakemont substation, to add a bay to accommodate a growing number of firefighters, their additional equipment and a new, large fire truck.

It asked AMED to help defray the $110,000 cost by paying more than double its existing $535 a month rent, then eventually tripling that rent, officials have said.

The company offered a 10-year lease, but no guarantee AMED could remain after that.

“That’s why we decided to go,” Watters said recently. “We felt it was a better move to position ourselves to be in our own building.”

There followed a site selection study that at first presumed construction of three ambulance bays and a deeper bay for AMED’s hospital bus; a living room, kitchen, locker space and a computer area for Emergency Medical Service workers and a space for supervisors — plus a possible training room with restroom and lobby, said Dave Albright, the architect AMED hired for the job.

That meant 3,000 square feet, plus 1,500 square feet for the training center, Albright said.

One of the benefits of the training center would be the potential to generate revenue, officials said.

Those plans led AMED to settle on the site of the current project on Shand Avenue at Reimer Street.

But the scope of the project grew “when we started to flesh out the schematic design,” Albright said.

The authority decided to boost the EMS worker count from four to potentially six, to a fourth ambulance bay and to add breakout conference rooms and space for manikin-based CPR lessons in the training center, which was now firmly in the plans, according to Albright.

All of that increased the one-story building’s footprint to 7,000 square feet, he said.

There followed “a quick study” of the feasibility of expanding the offices at the current cramped organizational headquarters on Seventh Avenue in Altoona into that building’s mezzanine, as originally intended when the organization acquired the site early this century, Albright said.

But the limitations of that site showed the work would be challenging, because parking there is limited, the precast plank floor of the mezzanine and the metal walls of the building itself would be difficult to work with, and because of difficulties maintaining “fire separation,” creating an egress stairway and providing ADA accessibility, according to Albright.

That led to the decision to transfer the organizational headquarters to Lakemont, which meant adding a 5,000 square foot second floor, which required an elevator, a stair tower and a second set of stairs, Albright said.

Initial plans called for keeping earth disturbance at Lakemont within one acre, to avoid requiring an earth disturbance permit from the state, which would have added six months to permitting, Albright said.

The organization didn’t want to add those months because it didn’t want to extend the Lakemont staff’s stay in temporary quarters, given that its fire station lease had already expired, Albright said.

But complications arose, as township requirements to build a sidewalk led to the need to plan for expensive retaining walls to avoid exceeding the one acre limit, Albright said.

Ultimately, that limit became a moot point, and construction of the retaining walls became unnecessary, after the board decided to acquire — eventually by eminent domain — two adjacent residential properties, so the organization can eventually construct a maintenance garage for in-house servicing of vehicles.

AMED expects to negotiate a change order in the construction contract that recognizes that simple grading beyond the sidewalks will eliminate the need for retaining walls, Albright said.

The big change was the addition of the second floor, which brought the cost from $2.6 million to $3.4 million, Watters said.

That $3.4 million exceeded pre-bid estimates by $200,000 to $300,000.

There were “some severe under-projections (of costs) by the architect,” Watters said.

His documentation proposal still needs to be discussed, Cowger said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.