For years, two construction cranes have dominated the Olympia landscape. Motorists southbound on Interstate 5 would see the cranes before getting a glimpse of the dome of the Legislative Building.
Slowly those cranes have helped build the gigantic, 300,000-square-foot Department of Information Services complex and its state Data Center. While the $255 million project is about $30 million under budget and remains ahead of schedule, lawmakers are beginning to ask some hard questions about the cost and size of the project.
Taxpayers are left scratching their heads. Why weren’t these questions about use of the building asked at the beginning of the project instead of just a few months before its scheduled completion? There were plenty of critics raising issues about funding sources for the lease-to-own project and use of the data center by state agencies when this project was conceived. Why weren’t their concerns taken seriously?
Now it’s a little late.
Lawmakers’ hands were pretty much forced when a state-funded report by Excipio Consulting LLC concluded the 50,000 square feet of space set aside for the Department of Information Services complex is far more than the state needs. The project also has 259,833 square feet of office space that will house headquarters for DIS, the Department of Personnel and some state budget-office functions at a much higher $44-per-square-foot rate than the agencies now pay.
Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, chairman of the House General Government Appropriations and Oversight Committee, said, “There are a number of us on the committee, and in the Legislature, who are very concerned about the data center. We’re looking at the numbers and the impact the data center has on the budget.”
While Democrats say the consultant’s report raises questions about the future use of the building, Republicans voice concerns that the amount of space set aside for the data center might have missed the mark. Public hearings in the state Legislature are being held to shed more light on the subject.
Lawmakers have taken some preemptive strikes, even before they can get to the bottom of the issue. Both the House and Senate have inserted language into pending supplemental budgets that would bar the Department of Information Services from purchasing equipment for the data halls at least through June.
And Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, a project critic, said he plans to add language to an information services bill that will require agencies to move their data operations into the new building as needed.
The primary role of DIS, a cabinet-level agency, is to help state and local government use technology more efficiently. DIS offers a wide range of products and services to schools, state agencies, counties, cities, and tribal governments, and the Information Services Board provides oversight to state government IT policies and agencies’ strategic plans.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has made consolidation of information technology a cornerstone of her government reorganization plan. The governor, who has been an avid backer of the DIS project, says there are savings to be made by combining IT services.
State budget officials acknowledge that, at least initially, agencies will be charged more for office space, but say after five years, DIS will have lower costs than it charges today for data services.
Stan Marshburn, deputy director for the Office of Financial Management, says that long term, the data center part of the project will go into the black. Marshburn said overall savings from DIS operations will outweigh overall costs for rent and equipment purchased for the data center by $1.9 million in fiscal year 2016. Tenant rental costs also will drop in 30 years after the state takes ownership of the structure under its lease-to-own arrangement.
Agency officials do not believe the data center is oversized and are eager to tell their story.
But Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, an early critic of the project and the lawmaker who put a proviso in the budget requiring the analysis by the independent consultant, wants to look at potential excess space and see what benefits the state can accrue from it for taxpayers. The state might be able to lease excess space to private companies which would cut state costs for the facilities.
For his part, Rep. Hudgins says if initial hearings show problems with the DIS complex, its sizing and costs, he and his committee members will delve deeper.
That’s appropriate. We just wish lawmakers had exercised their legislative oversight duties earlier than five months before the state is scheduled to take control of the multi-million dollar DIS project.