By Kurt English on August 02nd, 2014
Two months ago, I wrote about the new city hall building that, according to a report in the OC Register, was “furnished with high-end furniture and fixtures, including 204 leather Herman Miller chairs designed by modernist designers Charles and Ray Eames, at a cost of $1,073 each, according to city invoices.”
I was so surprised by the $1,073 chairs that I asked city officials for copies of these invoices. In my meeting with City Manager Dave Kiff in late May 2014, he promised to get them to me. Tara Finnegan also promised to get them to me. As of the publication deadline for this article more than two months later, I have not received copies of these invoices.
When I spoke to Steve Badum, the Assistant City Manager and project manager for the construction of the new city hall he said he said that the $1,073 cost might be accurate for Herman Miller conference chairs but that he couldn’t verify it without reviewing the invoices. Badum justified the expenses of the city hall by stating that the city used a “Value Engineering Process.”
He added that the budget for Furniture, Fixture and Equipment (FFE) was under two percent of the cost of the city hall project, which he said is good. Critics of the city hall project counter that the FFE was less than two percent because the building cost so much.
Badum said they wanted furniture in public areas of the city hall that was cost effective, durable and not lavish or extravagant. He also mentioned that the government buyers get discounts and don’t pay retail prices.
$1,073 for a chair seems excessive to me, as I complained in that article two months ago.
So for the last couple months I have been curious about what private sector organizations spend on conference room chairs. I asked business executives and lawyers with prominent law firms. One law firm partner told me his firm spent $150-$200 per chair in his firm’s “best” conference room. Another business owner told me he spent a similar amount for his conference room chairs that seat CEO’s of companies with tens of millions of dollars of revenue per year.
I had a hard time getting anybody to admit spending more than $200 on a conference room chair. One architect told me that it was possible to design in a $1,073 chair, but that you’d have to really try to do it. An executive that had sustained a back injury with subsequent back surgeries said he might buy a specialty chair for himself because of his unique medical condition, but not for common area use. It seemed reasonable to me that the city not spend more on conference room chairs than those private sector firms.
After these executives told me about their conference room chair costs, I asked them what they thought a city like Newport Beach might pay for conference room chairs. They each speculated that the city would pay what they paid ($200 or less). When I told them that $1,073 was spent on over 200 chairs, none of them could believe it.
The federal government is trillions of dollars in debt. California is deeply in debt. The city of Newport Beach issued certificates of participation that will result in the city paying about $100 million extra for the city hall project than if they paid cash. Unfunded pension liabilities are on top of these figures.
We need public officials to think about our children and grandchildren having to pay back public debt. Government at all levels needs to go on a spending diet. $1,073 chairs can’t be on the menu anymore. Business as usual won’t work in this debt environment. Government needs to change its spending habits to become cheap, just like the taxpayers struggling to pay for big government that spends too much money.