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Mayor Alvin Brown's cost-review measures holding up contractors

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on September 15, 2011.

It's been six weeks since Javier Garcia finished rehabilitating the Confederate Point Bridge, and he's still waiting for $131,000 the city owes him for the job.

That leads to a tough situation for the owner of Pinnacle Civil and General Contractors, who has been staving off vendors and subcontractors to whom he owes money connected to the job.

"It creates a tension between us,” Garcia said.

He's not alone in feeling that tension. Contractors large and small have struggled with a slowdown in receiving payments from the city in the 2 1/2 months since Mayor Alvin Brown took office.

Weeks of waiting have been tacked on to some decisions, including signing contracts and issuing payments, as the new administration holds up documents at the end of the procurement process. The paperwork goes through the same steps it had in the previous administration but then stalls when it reaches the mayor's office for a final signature.

The additional time is to allow for "an extra level of scrutiny" on contracts, said Chief of Staff Chris Hand.

"It's very important for us to do our due diligence,” he said. "These are large amounts of taxpayer dollars."

Among the items the administration feels bears more scrutiny: the number of change orders and the way long-term maintenance is budgeted.

That doesn't mean the reviewers are finding problems with the projects. Of the 57 projects approved by the General Government Awards Committee in July and August, only one was rejected by the mayor's office: a $734,258 project replacing 446 Sheriff's Office laptops. Before signing off on it, said Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Karen Bowling, the mayor's office wants more information.

Whether they find anything, though, the reviews take time. Ten of the 11 items approved by the General Government Awards Committee on July 14, for example, weren't passed through the mayor's office until late August. The decisions that languished for six weeks included extending a contract for sandbags through the end of hurricane season in September, renewing a contract for drain line replacement and construction and renewing a street-sweeping contract, all with prices staying the same.

In contrast, the seven items approved by the committee at its July 7 meeting received final approval the next day, which was the common practice before the review began. Brown took over as mayor on July 1.

As well as holding up payment, the delay in signing those documents has resulted in some contracts lapsing - for a while, the city had to buy police car tires on emergency purchase orders - although it's unclear if the city has suffered financially.

The wait does hurt contractors, though, particularly small and emerging businesses.

City rules already stipulate these contractors should receive payments more quickly, although small contractors often say this doesn't happen during normal times. When more time is tacked on to the process, things can become dire.

"You've practically issued me a death sentence,” said Vernon Green, foreman of M Y Contractors, a company that filed a complaint with the city regarding late payments. M Y was informed of the additional review being conducted by the mayor's office.

For Garcia, whose company is a bit larger, the situation hurts, but the business relationships he's built over the years are helping him survive as he waits for his money.

The city owes him about $181,000 stemming from three change orders, with the bulk of the money related to the Confederate Point Bridge project.

That job became more complicated soon after Garcia started working on it at the end of March, when the bridge - for which few records exist - turned out not to be the concrete structure it was thought to be.

That changed the scope of the work. After getting project manager approval for the new direction, Garcia proceeded as though the change order had been finalized, as is common practice. The other option would be to shut down with the work partially done and the job site still open.

"The road was torn up and the bridge was closed,” Garcia said. "You're putting the public at risk. That's bad business."

As Garcia and his team worked on the bridge over the next four months, the paperwork wound its way through the system. The awards committee signed off on the changes Aug. 4 and sent the amended contract to the mayor's office the next day. It then sat there for 26 days.

On Aug. 31, Bowling approved the change on the mayor's behalf, allowing the payment to start wending its way through the system again. The city has until the end of the month to issue it.

It's unclear how much longer the lengthier wait times will continue, but it is possible, Bowling said, that once it's over, contracts will move even faster than before. Among the data Bowling is collecting, she said, is information that will enable the city to streamline the process, perhaps by doing things such as cutting down on the dozen-plus signatures some paperwork now requires.

"We're looking at every single step of the process to find efficiencies,” she said.

For now, Garcia is keeping his fingers crossed, hoping the check will show up this week. He's not mad at the city, he said, and he has the comfort of knowing he'll eventually get paid, which means his subcontractors and vendors can get paid.

He just wishes it were sooner.



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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