The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Money, Don't Talk to me About Money

One of the less fun parts of my job is explaining budgets to clients. Most of the time, the client simply wants to know how much something will cost and how long it will take, and will trust us to know our business well enough to not question line items in the budget. Sometimes, however, they do want to argue, and the problem is that this usually occurs with a client who really doesn't understand what we do.

One such example comes from the first excavation that I ran. A site had been found during monitoring (where and archaeologist watches construction work to make sure no sites are damaged - it's just as exciting as it sounds, which is to say that it isn't). My boss went out to confirm that it was a site, and as per the land developer's agreement with the county, the site was to be tested for eligibility to the California Register of Historic Resources. If it was eligible, then a second excavation would be done for data recovery (the controlled and careful removal and analysis of as much of the archaeological material as is practical)*, and construction would then proceed.

So, a budget was created by my boss and sent to the client (the land developer). I was then sent to meet with the client and answer his questions. The first question: "If you're only going to dig thirty holes, how come you have a week of work scheduled? If I hired someone on my construction crew to dig thirty holes and it took them a week, I'd fire them!"

I then explained that he was unlikely that his construction crew would have reason to excavate the holes in 10-centimeter levels, run the soil through 1/8" mesh screen, and look through what was left in the screen to find artifacts. His response: "that doesn't have anything to do with how long it takes to dig a hole!"

Um, yes, yes it does. You idiot.

The discussion continued like this - he would try to compare the tasks that we had proposed in the budget to tasks that his construction crew would do, and ask why my archaeologists were going to take longer than his crew. I would explain why they would take longer (the answer to every question: we do these tasks for a different reason and actually have to look at what we're doing in a way that is unnecessary for construction), and he would insist that it should take the exact same amount of time, and so on, in circles.

Now, I can understand his concerns. Archaeologists cost money, though in this case the amount that we cost was nothing compared to the overall project budget. We also might slow things down, though we were trying to be as quick and efficient as possible. However, while I understand his worries, his insistence that archaeology should move at the same speed as construction was, frankly, absurd. Then again, I later found out that he had attempted to bribe my boss to simply not report the site, and that the bribe had been turned down, so maybe he was just pissy.

Eventually, I just pointed out that what was proposed in the budget was what was required due to the agreement he had signed with the county, and that the budget represented a worst case scenario, and we would work to be done faster than estimated, but I could make no promises. This didn't satisfy him, but the reference to his county permits did cause him to stop pestering me (maybe because of his bribery attempt).

I have since had this play out several other times - a client will insist that they know better than I do how long a task that they don't understand will take, and they will try to force my budget accordingly. It makes me grumpy.

*Everyone seems to have a story about a construction project being stopped when an archaeological site is found. This is very, very rare, and in my experience usually indicates that the project proponent (the person or organization advocating the construction) has decided to stop the project rather than simply go through with the process of evaluation and mitigation. Sometimes there is a good reason for this, often it's just obstinacy. The truth of the matter is that there is no provision in either the National Historic Preservation Act nor the California Environmental Quality Act that requires that a project be stopped to protect and archaeological site, and stories that you hear to the contrary are invariably stories told by people who haven't bothered to do any homework and are accepting urban legends at face value.

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