April 18, 2007
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
Construction at Hartford Public High School stopped Tuesday while executives of the general contractor met with city officials to settle a payment dispute.
In the end, the city agreed to cut a check for $3.8 million Thursday to Fluor Corp. to cover subcontractors' bills. But an additional $1.6 million - an amount that could push the $105 million project over budget yet again - remains in contention, said Charles Crocini, director of capital projects.
The charges still in dispute include: a bevy of so-called "delay claims" brought about by delays that have put the project about a year behind schedule; change orders that Crocini said were never approved by the school building committee; and Fluor's fees and expenses.
"We won't pay the $1.6 million," Crocini said Tuesday.
City officials and Fluor executives will meet again in two weeks or so to go over Fluor's claims that it is owed the money. "They agreed to get us a monthly expense report," Crocini said. "We haven't gotten one since January."
He didn't give examples of fees that he thought were too high, but this is not the first time Fluor's fees and expenses have come under fire.
In February 2005, Herbert Gordon - the project's construction contract administrator for Jeter, Cook & Jepson Architects until that job was eliminated to save money - complained that important work on the high school was being cut to curb costs while Fluor was spending money lavishly on its employees.
For example, Gordon said at the time, Texas-based Fluor was paying for hotels and per diem allowances for out-of-town employees and renting office equipment from another company that it owns at a higher cost than it would take to buy equipment. He gave the example of one office chair that Fluor was renting from another Fluor-owned company that, over time, would cost the city $500.
At the time, Fluor said some of the accusations were without merit and insisted it was fiscally responsible.
Fluor claims to be one of the world's largest publicly owned engineering, procurement, construction and maintenance service companies.
Last year it reported revenues of more than $14 billion and net profits of $263.5 million. Fortune magazine ranked it the 174th largest public company in the U.S., ahead of Eastman Kodak and Colgate-Palmolive and one spot behind ConAgra Foods.
Mayor Eddie A. Perez, chairman of the school building committee, did not return calls for comment. It was Perez who engineered the replacement of the previous construction manager with Fluor without going out to bid.
Steve C. Roth, a Fluor spokesman, said Tuesday the work stoppage at Hartford Public was caused by a misunderstanding. "The folks were supposed to be on the site today and will resume tomorrow."
Michelle Brown, a consultant for Fluor and a board member of the Minority Construction Council, has angrily complained for months that subcontractors on the job weren't being paid. On Tuesday, she was delighted that Fluor shut the site down to protest the city's refusal to pay. "I don't believe the city believed they would stop work," she said. "It vindicates the contractors. It sounds a louder trumpet - the contractors have to be paid."
Crocini said the city withheld $3.8 million in payment from Fluor for months because Fluor submitted pay requisitions with mathematical errors and charges for change orders that the school building committee had not approved.
Since Fluor took over the job, it has changed management on the project six times, Crocini said. He surmised that the transitions may have played a role in the paperwork mistakes. But if the requisitions are not correct, he said, it will be hard for the city to collect reimbursement from the state.
Roth would not comment on the allegations that Fluor consistently submitted erroneous requisitions. A prepared statement from him read: "In our meeting today, Fluor officials were successful in getting an agreement from the city to pay our local subcontractors the $3.8 million they are owed ... Despite the fact that Fluor is still owed money by the city, we are continuing to work at the school and soon anticipate turning over this great educational facility to the community."
Brown scoffed at Crocini's assertion that Fluor submitted erroneous paperwork. "It is one thing to say that we don't know how to fill out paperwork," Brown said of the subcontractors. "You're not going to tell me the largest contractor in the world doesn't know how to fill out paperwork. Fluor builds cities. I'm sure they can build a high school."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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