Hartford Seeking $27M In School Construction Reimbursements
State: 'No Response' From City, School Officials When Documents Were Questioned
By JENNA CARLESSO
March 23, 2013
HARTFORD —— The city has hired a consultant to try to recover as much as $27 million in state reimbursements for school construction projects, some of which date back to 2003.
Paperwork submitted to the state for reimbursement — for projects overseen by Diggs Construction, the board of education and Pinnacle One — was incomplete or incorrect, city officials said.
When the state warned city and school officials about the paperwork problems, they either did not respond or did not take the appropriate action to resolve them, state officials said.
"I'd receive no response, or someone would say, 'We'll get right on it,' and then nothing would happen," said George Semenec, who worked in the state's bureau of school facilities during the period when the reimbursements originally were sought.
Semenec said he copied then-Superintendent Stephen Adamowski and also James A. Keaney Jr., who was the city's director of capital projects at the time, on e-mails he sent to city and school officials warning them of the problems with the documents.
"There was a lot of correspondence," said Keaney, who retired in 2011. "It's hard for me to comment on what correspondence happened or what correspondence didn't happen."
Adamowski and officials at Diggs did not return calls seeking comment. A number for Pinnacle One was no longer in service.
The city so far has been paid about 95 percent of the total amount that the state will reimburse, or about $550 million, city officials said. The $27.6 million represents the final 5 percent, and was delayed because of issues with change orders on the projects, city officials said.
In an effort to recoup the $27 million — at a time when the city is facing a $9.4 million budget deficit this year and an estimated $70 million shortfall in the next — the city hired Christopher M. Roof of Phoenix Architectural Management LLC in Hartford.
The city has paid Roof $258,737 for his work since last spring in helping close out the school projects, Roof wrote in an e-mail.
'Far More Issues'
Mayor Pedro Segarra said administrators have been working diligently to recover the $27.6 million.
"We've been beating this drum and we've been beating it loudly," he said. "This is a lot of money. Let's get focused on the things that really impact the bottom line."
City architect Antonio Matta discovered the problems last spring when he began looking at the school projects and noticed that some of them hadn't been closed out.
"We decided to look into [a few] projects, and felt that we could close them out with city staff," Matta said. "But it became evident that there were far more issues."
Thirteen of the projects for which the city sought reimbursement were overseen by Diggs, five were overseen by the board of education and two were helmed by Pinnacle One, Matta said. Diggs' projects were started between 2003 and 2010; Pinnacle's projects began in 2006; and the board of education's projects date back to the early 2000s. Exact dates were not available.
The 20 projects include work performed at 18 different city schools, mostly renovations meant to bring the schools up to building and safety codes, such as mechanical and electrical work, plumbing, roof repair, and window and door replacements, among other things, Matta said.
Matta said the $27.6 million was held up because of problems with the projects' change orders — documents that address changes made in the scope of the work during the construction.
Change orders usually must be submitted to the state for reimbursement within six months of the time each is executed, city and state officials said. After a change order has been approved by the state's bureau of school facilities, it goes to the Office of Internal Audit, where an audit is performed. The percentage of the construction costs to be reimbursed is then determined and paid to the municipality.
For the projects in question, Diggs, Pinnacle and the board of education submitted change orders to the state, but when state officials had questions, they got no answers, Matta said.
"When a change order is rejected, we have the right and duty to say, 'Why was it rejected?' and 'Do you need more documents or explanation?'" Matta said. "You don't just say, 'Thank you for rejecting our change orders.' You really need to do due diligence to receive [the reimbursements].
"It's the program manager's role, with the assistance of construction managers, to follow up on behalf of the city."
Because that apparently wasn't done, Matta said, "We are recreating information to a large extent."
Roof, the consultant, and city employees have reached out to members of the board of education at the time, the construction companies and others to get paperwork, signatures and other missing pieces in order to recoup the rest of the money.
"We're going back to the original construction manager, the original designers to get signatures for stuff they've already signed off on," he said.
Keaney, who worked for Diggs and later was hired by the city, pointed out that the city had been reimbursed in a timely manner for much of the costs. But he said he was not sure what happened with the change orders.
"There were tons of meetings about the change orders submitted to the state, and the state may or may not have had comments," he said. "At this point, as far as I can recall, all change order information requested by the state was submitted to the state, and any questions they had were responded to in the time period when I was there. Anything that came through was responded to."
Semenec, who handled the review of change orders for school construction projects for the state, and who said he dealt with several orders submitted by the city in the mid- to late 2000s, recalled that the problems ranged from mismatched figures to missing forms.
"Sometimes it was as simple as not filling out the state form," said Semenec, 68, who retired from the state in May. "Sometimes there was one number on the state form and a different [number] on the summary."
At one point, Semenec said, he contacted an employee at Diggs to ask why an issue involving mismatched numbers hadn't been resolved. "They said, 'Well, it's not that simple,'" he said. In some cases, he said, "there was no response for months or years."
Documents left behind by the program managers indicated that the city was still owed about $45 million in reimbursements, Matta said, but upon investigation, city officials discovered the amount is closer to $27.6 million.
City officials are counting on $12.2 million from the state this year — reimbursements stemming from five school construction projects — to keep its budget balanced.
Of the five projects — work performed at Alfred E. Burr Elementary School, Dr. James H Naylor/CCSU Leadership Academy, Sarah J. Rawson Elementary School, Breakthrough Magnet School and Classical Magnet School — paperwork for four are in the state's Office of Internal Audit, said Jeffrey Beckham, a spokesman for the state Department of Construction Services. Documents for the fifth — at Classical Magnet — are still being reviewed, he said.
Paige Farnham, an education consultant for the state Department of Education, said that once the paperwork for a school construction project is submitted, as long as no issues arise with the documentation, it takes 30 days or less for it to be approved and sent to the internal audit department. Audits typically must be completed within six months, Farnham said, though "in the recent past, we have not always had the staff to complete the audits within that time frame."
Next year, Matta said, city officials plan to submit another batch of paperwork in connection with seven more school construction projects. They are hoping to get at least $9 million in reimbursements from those, he said. Reimbursements for the remaining eight projects will be sought sometime in the future, he added.
'On The Same Page'
Matta said he and colleagues have taken steps to ensure that old mistakes don't happen again.
"I'm being very diligent and very careful, making sure we're submitting change orders on projects currently being constructed," he said. "The current process is being done in a way that will minimize issues, so we won't be asking for reimbursements five years after-the-fact. If the state has questions on change orders, we can answer immediately because [the projects] are live."
Since Diggs' departure in 2010, the city has been contracting with a new company, ARCADIS/O&G. City officials are now meeting regularly with state employees, Matta said.
"We want to make sure they are on the same page with us," he said. "We're constantly working with them to develop a rapport. We hope to continue to work with them, given their limited resources, and get the city reimbursed as quickly as possible."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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