Broward News

Deerfield Beach Housing Chief Defends No-Bid Contract

Since February questions have been raised about construction projects awarded by the Deerfield Beach Housing Authority. In particular, the agency seems to have a checkered history of following guidelines for keeping its procurement process corruption-free. Earlier this month, executive director Pamela Davis agreed to discuss two controversial contracts. This post will deal with the August 2009 contract for asbestos abatement at the Stanley Terrace apartments on Southwest 2nd Street.

Davis says that the agency first learned of its need for asbestos abatement in July 2009, when an architect was preparing plans to bring the complex into compliance with fire safety standards. Since that project would involve wiring smoke alarms through the ceilings of units, it had the potential to disrupt the asbestos and harm Stanley Terrace residents.

The health hazards to residents meant the agency would need to work fast, says Davis. Since it would take too long to do a formal sealed bid and to get HUD funding for the asbestos abatement, she designed the contract to pay by individual units.

Davis' agency got quotes -- not a formal bid -- from three firms, ultimately giving the contract to the low bidder, Best-Tec Environmental, which offered to take care of the asbestos for $2,200 per unit. That started with an unoccupied apartment -- No. 76 -- which was already a construction zone due to a mold problem. Later, a contract was drawn with Best-Tec to cover asbestos abatement in the remaining 47 units.

By splitting the contract up in this way, Davis avoided having to go through a formal bidding process, which is required of HUD projects that exceed $25,000. She would pay for the project from the Housing Authority's operations budget until the HUD money arrived.

"When something happens that is critical, we have to use our operations money," says Davis. She did receive HUD funding on September 2 -- about two months after the agency learned of its asbestos problem at Stanley Terrace.

But the agency did not immediately put the remaining asbestos abatement work out for bid. Rather, it continued to let Best-Tec do the job at the same $2,200 per-unit rate. "My error is that once HUD gave that (funding) approval I did not go out and do a formal bid," says Davis.

She waited till this past March to release that bid -- apparently as a response to reporting on the contract by Chaz Stevens and Juice the previous month. Best-Tec, which had already finished abatement work in 18 Stanley Terrace units, opted out of the bid; instead Decon Environmental earned the contract to complete the abatement in the 30 remaining units.

Davis points out that the per-unit cost of abatement went up slightly, to $2,367. This, she says, is an indication that Best-Tec's original contract was not inflated, even though it didn't go through a formal bid.

That may be; but this episode raises a number of questions about the way the Housing Authority is being managed. 

For one, it doesn't seem like the agency saved much (if any) time by short-circuiting the bid process. 

The Housing Authority knew of its asbestos problem at Stanley Terrace before July 13, when it paid the company that performed the testing. The contract for the whole Stanley Terrace abatement project wasn't signed till August 29, meaning that at least six weeks passed between the finding of asbestos and the abatement project's launch. A former Housing Authority employee, Leslie Hall, says that's "plenty of time" to do a formal bid.

Hall was fired by Davis in December. Davis' attorney, Tom Connick, has derided Hall as a "disgruntled" employee who "doesn't know what she's talking about."

And that prickly defense is another questionable aspect of this case. Since learning a few months ago that it would be asked to provide records to a forensic investigator, Davis, the Housing Authority board and its general counsel ganged up on the newly appointed board member, Chaz Stevens, who irritated them by his requests for records before his ouster.

On June 7, the Authority's general counsel William Crawford wrote a lengthy letter seeking to convince the Deerfield Beach city attorney to call off that forensic auditor, Michael Kessler, or to scale back Kessler's demands for documents. In addition Connick fired off a letter to the commissioners in which he attacks Kessler's qualifications.

For a nonprofit agency that is the spender of public dollars and a custodian public records, it's all very peculiar. Residing in a city that's been so mired with corruption, shouldn't the Deerfield Beach Housing Authority expect to raise eyebrows when it splits up a contract in order to avoid doing a formal bid? And provided it has nothing to hide, shouldn't the Housing Authority be eager to have itself cleared?

After an initial interview, I circled back to Connick and his client, Davis, to get her response to these questions. But after agreeing to grant a phone interview, Connick changed his mind, demanding that in exchange for the chance to ask these follow-up questions, I drive to Deerfield Beach, then take a 90-minute guided tour of Housing Authority facilities. The demands of being Juice blog editor make it difficult to embark on such time-consuming errands unless absolutely necessary for an article, which was not the case here. After Connick and Davis refused a phone interview, I e-mailed them my questions. They did not respond.

For this reason, this post may be edited later to include clarifications that would have otherwise been provided by a more cooperative Davis.

Later, we'll take a closer look at a couple of questionable contracts between the Housing Authority and Don Ridge Construction, the firm run by the husband of a Housing Authority architect.

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Thomas Francis