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The Sound of Money: Explaining the Symphony’s Price Tag

By Sally Giddens |

If you think the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is mired in massive cost overruns and plagued by whining private donors wanting more marble for their money, you’re not alone. But Cliff Keheley, public works director for the city of Dallas; Ross Perot, major benefactor of the symphony center; and Leonard Stone, executive director of the Dallas Symphony Association, alt beg to differ with those opinions.

First of all, those “cost overruns” you’ve been reading about are technically not overruns, says Keheley, Instead, every time the city council votes to approve, say, $18,000 for motorized shades for the lobby, council has not necessarily tacked an increase onto the symphony budget, but has either approved a line item transfer-which involves moving money from one line item in the budget to another-or it has approved a change order within the two contingencies in the budget. Lost yet? Stay with us as we explain a Guaranteed Maximum Price contract, which is the complicated culprit behind this city-wide confusion. This will be swift and painless.

The line item transfers are easy. Say you have $350 to spend on food each month. Red peppers are on your grocery list, but they are $6.99 a pound, more than you had estimated- Buying them will put you over budget. So to stay under the $350 limit (the guaranteed maximum price), you take some of the steak out of the grocery cart and get the peppers.

Now about the contingencies. There are two of them-the construction manager’s contingency and the owner’s (or city’s) contingency. The total amount in both contingencies when the contract was awarded was $1,426,427. Though there have been fifty transactions within the construction manager’s contingency and thirteen transactions in the owner’s since the contract was awarded on January 30, 1985, there is actually more money in the contingencies now than there was at the start-$272,823 more, to be exact. Keheley calls that a “savings,” not an overrun. Baffled? Back to the grocery store: pushing your cart down the aisle, you see a great bottle of wine. It wasn’t in your original budget, but it will really complement your meal. Luckily, you have provided for this change by padding your checking account with $200 (the contingency). So you get the wine. Now to explain Keheley’s savings. Well, first of all, over on aisle two, salsa was on special. You hadn’t counted on that, so you saved some money there. And then there was Aunt Blanche-last month she gave you some money to use “when it would come in handy.” The owner’s contingency was helped by $260,000 worth of donations.

Now, to clear up what you’ve been hearing about pouting, overbearing benefactors, chiefly Ross Perot. His original $10 million donation to the hall had very few strings attached, says the symphony’s Leonard Stone. Actually, there were five strings: one, that the center be named for Perot’s close associate Mort Meyerson; two, that Meyerson’s portrait be hung in the foyer of the building; three, that a plaque with the portrait would explain that the hall was made possible through the hard work of the men and women of EDS; four, that the Perot name not be used or associated with the hall; and five, that the design of the hall be executed as conceived by I.M. Pei, meaning no major changes in basic design. (One string broke: the building has actually been redesigned three times due to changes in the parking configuration.)

Of course all of this does not mean that the Morton H. Mey-erson Symphony Center isn’t more expensive now than it started out to be. The biggest budget change came in 1985 when the cost estimate jumped from $49.5 million to 375 million. And that price tag is about to increase to $81.5 million from the most recent $79 million estimate. Keheley asked the council in June to approve adding $2.5 million of extra accrued interest into the budget for enhancements that will make the symphony center more appealing to prospective renters.

And, says Perot, if it takes more money now to make that symphony center into the world-class building it was conceived to be. we had better gut up and spend it. “We’re really stuck,” says Perot. “I say spend what it takes at this point. One hundred years from now, if we have the ultimate jewel, it will be well worth it.”

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