Miami city commissioners insist on more control of bond projects
By Risa Polansky
Frustrated with cost overruns and delayed projects in a recent bond program, Miami commissioners want more influence in spending up to $80 million for street and sidewalk work to be funded by a new special obligation bond.
Further, commissioners are insisting on more accountability from city staff after the many problems encountered in earlier bond projects.
The bond money is to fund street and sidewalk construction and improvements citywide — and the commission wants a say in what and where.
Administrators "need to sit down with us and discuss it," Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones said.
Commissioners "don't want the administration selecting what we need in our districts," Chairman Angel González said. "We should be the one telling you, Mr. Manager."
City Manager Pete Hernandez assured commissioners he is "committed to satisfying your concerns" and promised the bond program will include "improvements that you do desire."
Commissioners' call for involvement comes after $38 million in cost overruns in the city's first series of its $255 million Homeland Defense and Neighborhood Improvement Bond program.
"You could never realize my frustration with this (the capital improvement) department," Commissioner González said. "I used to ask them when my projects would be completed. Now, I don't even do that, because it's a total disregard."
About 65 planned projects were "cut less than a year ago because the money was needed to finish projects" already under way, Commissioner Tomás Regalado said.
To complete over-budget projects, the city cannot, he said, continue to siphon "money from the planned projects, which, in turn, we have already promised to the people. We just don't want the sequel to what happened before."
Staffers insist they won't make the same mistakes twice.
Projects planned for this bond issuance have "better definition" than those in the bungled program, Mr. Hernandez said. "We're working with more solid figures. The risk of overruns will be less in this program."
The last bond program, he said, "was put together hastily in the beginning."
Mary Conway, former head of capital improvements and chief of operations, said earlier this year that when the city planned the projects to be funded by the Homeland Defense bond, staff listed rough dollar allocations for the endeavors but did not calculate "detailed project costs."
She was fired in July after 11 employees she oversaw were charged with running a private consulting firm on city time using city equipment.
New Capital Improvement Program Director Ola Aluko assured commissioners that current plans for the streets bond include "better allocations than what we had in the Homeland Defense."
Another flaw in that program, Mr. Hernandez said: past administrators "promised too many things that were unattainable."
He is now working with staff, he said, to be "realistic with time, with costs, and then deliver on that."
Still, commissioners had further demands.
Contractors who have proven unreliable in the past should not be hired for future projects, Commissioner González said.
Mr. Hernandez agreed that the city's priority "should not just be low bid."
Past performance is to play a leading role in the selection process in the future, he said.
Commissioner González also pushed for better enforcement.
"Whenever we issue a contract, if people comply with the contract on time or ahead of time, they should be rewarded," he said. For dragging their feet, contractors should be "penalized daily by certain amounts."
Commissioner Regalado also questioned the city's use of outside entities to complete projects.
"When is capital improvements going to be able to take control of these projects?" he asked. "Or are we going to depend on the same consultants and project managers of the past?"
Mr. Aluko said his department has "started to phase down our project managers."
The city had "consultants at too many layers," Mr. Hernandez conceded. "We are moving away from the use of the program manager."
City staff should be in control, he said. "I don't want consultants supervising consultants."
But Commissioner Spence-Jones offered all a "friendly reminder."
During budget cuts last month, she said, administrators eliminated positions from the capital improvements department.
Mr. Aluko can't be blamed, she said, "when he does not have the staff to do his job."
Staff is to be added as needed, Mr. Aluko said, and be billed to each project rather than the city's general fund.
Commissioners voted to issue the first series of the bond, but, Commissioner Joe Sanchez warned, "the word that I want to focus on is accountability."