For years, Santa Clara County supervisors were told that an innovative psychiatric facility serving children and teens would be complete and open to patients by November next year. As it turns out, that deadline was never going to happen.
Now the tentative plan is to open the hospital by December 2024 at the earliest, a more than yearlong delay that has supervisors frustrated and looking to prevent further problems caused by either contractors or the county itself. County supervisors voted unanimously last week to hire an independent auditor to keep a closer watch on the hospital's development and avoid more delays.
Santa Clara County began planning for the hospital in 2018 following emotional pleas from the community for a youth psychiatric facility. Up until then, children in crisis were forced to travel long distances for care, with some families driving as far as Sacramento or Bakersfield for available beds.
Though the plans have changed over time to include adult psychiatric beds, the mission remains largely unchanged. The new hospital facility located at Valley Medical Center in San Jose will have 77 beds, including 21 for adolescents and 14 for children in separate hospital wards, with an emphasis on offering a safe healing environment for patients in crisis.
What has radically changed is the schedule. The original plan was to have the hospital open to patients by Nov. 2023, a timeline that county staff had stuck by repeatedly at the county's Health and Hospital Committee meetings throughout 2020 and 2021. But the timeline lurched last November to suggest that construction was not moving along at a swift pace at all, moving the date to December 2024.
Even that timeline is starting to look tenuous at best. The general contractor for the project, XL Construction, told county officials that it is backing away from "any possibility" of meeting the original completion date, citing a later estimate of April 2025. The project's costs, originally estimated to be $233 million, are now projected to land between $370 million and $496 million -- the latter based on XL Construction's latest report.
The escalating costs are fueled by a mix of scope changes and "uncertainty" in the construction market, according to the company, which includes labor shortages, material costs and other problems brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supervisor Joe Simitian, who proposed that the county hire an auditor to ensure the project stays on time and on budget, said he was continuously disappointed at the way the timeline was presented to the board. Along with the monthly updates, Simitian would ask county staff point blank at each meeting whether the construction schedule remained realistic -- something he described as a "painful practice" that still could not keep the project on time.
"We were given repeated assurances about a timeline and those repeated assurances proved not to be consistent with the facts on the ground," Simitian said at the Jan. 11 meeting. "I have spent three years getting information that has been not accurate about the completion date."
Along with hiring an auditor, the county has told XL Construction that it would be terminating its contract with the company and would search for a general contractor starting in February, said Doug Koenig, the county's deputy director of capital programs. He said completion of the hospital by the end of 2024 is still achievable and five full months ahead of what the XL Construction proposed.
At the Dec. 15 Health and Hospital Committee meeting, Supervisor Otto Lee called the delays disappointing and said that the psychiatric hospital is a badly needed resource for the community.
"It's long overdue and there is certainly a sense of urgency to do this," Lee said. "Having an appointment of an independent auditor to keep pushing this thing would be very helpful."
Santa Clara County has struggled in the past to keep hospital construction on schedule and under budget. A project to expand Valley Medical Center with a new wing led to serious problems in 2015, including a lawsuit by the county claiming the lead contractor was to blame for delays and costs rising by more than $100 million. Both parties later came to an agreement and resumed construction in 2016.