The Business of the City: Miscellaneous

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tepper's: More Questions Than Answers

'Curiouser and curiouser!' cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English);'now I'm opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!

For those of you who read Dan Damon's blog post on the Tepper's project--click here, I am wondering if you have some of the same questions that were brought to my mind. After reading over some documentation about this federally-funded project (to the tune of $462,500.00), I have several questions related to the bidding process for this project and to the actual disbursement of these federal funds. 

The first question, of course, is: how did the city spend $459,000 in federal discretionary funds to fit out a portion of this basement in just 3 weeks? Of course, I am not an engineer, nor do I work in construction, but it should be obvious to a duck that what has been done does not represent $459,000 of work. 

My personal tour of the space showed an unfinished, junked-up mess in the basement of the Tepper's building, with some sheet-rocked areas, a great deal of discarded construction materials and furniture, rough, unfinished office space enclosed behind glass doors, locked bathrooms (a key was not provided to inspect the bathrooms) and a water fountain. If there were plumbing, electrical, and other inspections, they would not pass muster. The basement is simply not habitable--how could $459,000 result in an uninhabitable space?

The bidding process, from what I have read, was as follows: Invitations for proposals were solicited and duly advertised by a Westfield company, Vincentsen Associates on Thursday, August 2, 2007, from bid specs dated Tuesday, July 31, 2007.

Proposals were received on Wednesday, August 15, 2007, and opened on that same day. One company, Solid Rock Construction, was shown as the ONLY bidder, called the "only responsive bidder" in the letter from the engineering firm to Jennifer Wenson-Maier, dated Thursday, August 16, 2007, wherein they recommended that the city accept this bid because of time constraints on the project. It is inconceivable to me that no other construction company would want the opportunity to get a close to half-million dollar contract, and possibly extremely convenient that Solid Rock received it.

It was also spoken of as the only responsible bidder--out of $462,000 in available grant money, the ONLY bidder provides a proposal to spend $459,000 of that money--this seems very odd to me. The resolution passed on Wednesday, August 22, 2007, and Solid Rock received the contract. Construction was scheduled to begin on Monday, August 27 and to be completed by Monday, September 17--three weeks later.

1st Payment
The first request for payment ($73,473.77) was received on Wednesday, August 29 and signed by Wenson-Maier on Thursday, August 30. In looking at the documents for this first payment, some of the invoices predate the resolution by a few days--which means that before the contract was even formally awarded, Solid Rock started spending money.

2nd Payment
The second payment request ($85,522.36) dated Wednesday, September 5, 2007, was received by the city on Friday, September 7 and the check was disbursed in that amount on Monday, September 10, 2007. Some of this money went for contracted-out labor costs and materials with breakdown sheets, along with a 20% markup for Solid Rock. A lot of cash was spent at Home Depot as well--many receipts for items that we can only assume were spent on this project and not others. 

There is also an invoice dated Thursday, September 6 for $6,760.00 for a company called Fyre Technology, Inc. in South Plainfield, for "Materials-for project City of Plainfield office space"--I am assuming related to a fire sprinkler system--there is just a handwritten notation: "Required for Offices piping and Related Materials Sprinkler Heads, Hanger, Rod"--there is NO breakdown of what Solid Rock received for that sum. 

The check was cut on the very next day, Friday, September 7. Solid Rock did mark up the cost by 20% ($1,352.00), so the city actually paid over $8,000.00 for whatever it was. To the $26, 220.55 in material and labor costs for another company, Vela Electric, Solid Rock added $5,244.11 MORE for its 20% markup payment, resulting in $31,464.66 for the electrical work. The markup in this instance exceeded even the materials cost.

3rd Payment
The third payment to Solid Rock was requested a scant two days after the 2nd payment disbursement, on Wednesday, September 12, 2007. A check in the amount of $99,478.07 was issued on Friday, September 14. Part of this payment went to Saturday and Sunday time-and-a-half,and Labor Day holiday double-time for some of the sub-contractors and their workers. There are a few checks made out to individuals for vague services, and there is a $100.00 check made out to Wash-a-load Laundromat for "sanitary accomadations" (sic) --I presume for letting the workers use the bathroom?

Oddly, there is also a receipt from Staples dated Thursday, September 6 for a LaserJet printer at a cost of $549.98 (minus a rebate of $150.00). In addition, Solid Rock purchased a 3-year warranty on the printer at an additional cost of $109.99. Why would Solid Rock bill the city for a 3-year warranty on a 3-week project? Why would they charge the city for a printer at all? This suggests that Solid Rock wanted a printer for 3 years--how is this purchase justified on a 3-week project? Why would the city pay it? Where is this printer? How many other vague invoices did the city not scrutinize? Who was reviewing these invoices?

Final (4th) Payment
The final payment ($139,268.14) was issued Thursday, September 20, 2007 on an invoice received by the city just the day before, Wednesday, September 19, 2007. This includes payments to the subcontractors for HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and nearly $15,000 in carpeting and installation (and a payment for carpet cleaning). There is also an invoice dated Thursday, September 13, 2007 from Federated Fire Services, Inc. in South Plainfield in the amount of $11, 376.24 for "LABOR" for sprinkler repair and replacement of 42 sprinkler heads.

Now, if you look above, at the second payment, you will see that there was an invoice dated Thursday, September 6, 2007 from Fyre Technology for sprinkler heads. So, if, less than a week later, the original sprinkler heads were found to be defective or in some way not suitable, why did Solid Rock Construction bill the city for the replacement and additional labor involved? There is no explanation in the paperwork--each company received payment.   

The city also wrote a check for W.B. Mason in the amount of $29,000 for office furniture for the basement from this federal grant fund. The check was dated September 21, 2007, but was not disbursed until after June 9, 2008.This is unclear, as there is no paperwork of W.B. Mason's response to the terms requested by Mr. Howard. The terms were that because of the water filtration issues in the Tepper's basement, the city was asking W.B. Mason to continue storing the furniture. Unless I missed something, I could not find anything to show what happened to the federally-funded furniture--unless W.B. Mason is still storing it, 5 years later. 

Jacques Howard sent a final report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Development on Friday, September 21, 2007, stating that the city had fulfilled the terms of the $462, 500.00 grant and was prepared to invoice the government for the balance of funds for this special project grant. Listed among the milestones was that the "...City buildings division completed rough inspections by 9.14.07" and that the construction was "...complete a of week of 9.17.07. City will review and accept performance of the contract by week of 9.24.07." 

Yet, less than two weeks later, Mr. Howard, in a Tuesday, October 2, 2007 memo (discussing a meeting with the Tepper's developer about the water filtration issues in the basement) sent to Wenson-Maier, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, and Marc Dashield, he notes that the city had recently (less than two weeks earlier) "...invested $462,000.00 of federal grant funds...yielding 7500 square feet of improvements." He suggests that the city should make the developer abate the water issues as well as hold him responsible for damages to the city's "improvements."

There are several other points made in that memorandum. A more recent memorandum (from December 2012) notes that a Certificate of Occupancy cannot be granted due to the need for additional sub-code inspections--electrical, framing, and plumbing. Yet, the city stated back in 2007 that the rough inspections were completed by Friday, September 14, 2007. So, were inspections done or not? What does the federal government think was done on this project regarding the claims made by the Robinson-Briggs administration about these expenditures?

The bottom line, however, is that six years after this rushed (and in my view, extremely overpriced and shoddy) project was supposedly completed for over $460,000 dollars in federal grant funds, it remains uninhabitable and, therefore, unusable.

Further, the questions regarding the bidding, the awarding of the contract, the vague invoices, the $29,000 worth of furniture, and all the city disbursements need to be explained satisfactorily to the residents of this city--and to the federal government. I will follow up on the current status of this project and the expenditures.



  1. Yes, please do follow up..., the citizens and others MUST know!! Thank you!

  2. RebecColumbo . . . keep turning up the flames under this SRB Administration! I am staying tuned . . .

    and by the way "THANK YOU!"

  3. every person involved in this should be indicted for fraud ... one big group..then we'll see who sings the loudest and longest flipping the others in, including the contractors and city employees

  4. Wow - great research. Demand answers. If the feds audit this the city is in big trouble.

    PS - you could build a VERY nice house for $462,000 even at NJ prices - it should have gone MUCH further than it appears to have

  5. I'm always skeptical when Sharon is involved, but the accounting here seems shady. I also wonder why the city paid for a laserjet that was so expensive. If the city paid for it, we should have gotten it after the project was finished. Why did we pay so much, when you can get a good laserjet for less than $200.00. Keep up the good work Rebecca.

  6. It is not impossible but highly improbable that the scope of work described could be accomplished in 2 to 3 weeks. What was the form of the executed contract? Does it exist? Typically an AIA form of contract is used by Municipalities. By the provisions contained in this document there are a series of requirements associated with requisitioning funds. The first step is for the Contractor to submit a payment schedule. This document lists the principal items of work with the Contractor's estimate of the associated cost of the listed items.. This document is reviewed by the Engineer or Architect, corrected if necessary, and in the final approved form used as the basis for subsequent requisitions. The period, or interval, at which the requisitions are to b submitted is defined. When the requisition is submitted by the Contractor for payment the Architect or Engineer reviews it and concurrently inspects the site of the work for two purposes; to see if the amount of work being billed has in fact been performed, and that the work if preformed is in accordance with Code and specifications. All this completed the requisition is then submitted with the Engineer's; or Architect's approval, or as corrected by them, to the Owner, in this case the City, for payment to the Contractor. What you describe is "The Wild West"!. Chaos! Beyond comprehension! Beyond any reasonable accepted standard of conducting business. The questions which arise from this debacle require investigation by what authority can be mustered in Plainfield, if any, but most certainly by Federal Authorities with the clear prospect of the misappropriation of Federal Funds.

    Bill Kruse PENJ

  7. A couple observations - 20% markup for a general contractor is not unusual. It breaks down as 10% overhead and 10% profit. The inspections are done in two phases - rough and final. There are sometimes intermediate inspections, but not often. The grant may have had conditions that would disqualify furniture and office equipment. The sprinkler work in two phases by different contractors is a little unusual, to say the least.

    1. Hi, Michael--thanks for your input. 20% may not be unusual, but the contracts that I have seen come through have been no more than 15% for markup. Of course, some contractors will try to get more. I will check again to see if we are paying 20% overhead and profit on the printer they purchased. The way many of the receipts look (with a lot of cash changing hands), a contractor could have been purchasing materials for other jobs. Yes, the rough inspection was completed, but the final was not. Yet, Solid Rock got paid, in spite of questionable issues. We shall see. Thanks so much.

  8. Mike It goes to the form of contract. There was a BID for a Lump Sum of $459.000. Presumably the bid was for a prescribed scope of work. Customarily payments would be made as the work was completed. The margin of 10% for overhead and 10% for profit is customary. although it is more typically 10 and 5 on State contracts. . Putting that aside, the application of the margins, be it 10 and 10, or 10 and 5, is used for extra work which is not defined in the bid documents. That is. work which was not contemplated, or for quantities of work which exceed the amounts specified in the bid documents. Until we can review the Bid Documents, and the contract which we presume was executed with the "Only responsive bidder", we can not form a judgment as to what was happening here. On the face of it the kindest thing that can be said is that what transpired was "strange". Bill Kruse

    1. I agree, Bill. The whole business is beyond strange. I've worked with Vincentsen on municipal projects and found them very competent. However, I know nothing of the particulars of this project other than what I have read. Getting this work done in three weeks and processing payments and change orders in that timeframe is nigh unto impossible.