Nearly two years after the grand opening of Inverness’ Depot District, with its new Liberty and Wallace Brooks Park, the city is closing the financial books on the project as part of its 2020 annual audit. But city council members and staff say the project’s bookkeeping was sloppy, kept the council out of the decision-making loop, and left questions unanswered.
Independent auditors gave the city good marks for its overall financial health, but the $12.4 million Depot District project was cited for its lack of supporting paperwork and city council involvement.
“During our audit, we noted several large change orders on the Depot District construction projects were not brought before council for approval,” auditors for McDirmit Davis and Company LLC wrote the city council.
“We recommend that the city’s purchasing policy require change orders over a specified or percentage of the contract be brought before the council for approval.”
City Manager Eric Williams, who took over his manager position January 2020 after the Deport District was already completed, told the Chronicle there were 63 change orders associated with the six projects that made up the Depot District undertaking.
The contractor administering the project was Clancy & Theys Construction Company in Winter Garden outside Orlando.
As for why the change orders weren’t taken to the council for approval, Williams said former city manager Frank DiGiovanni had overseen the project and worked directly with the contractor.
Williams said he didn’t know why the change orders weren’t individually taken to the council.
As part of the audit, Williams wrote the Florida Auditor General that as soon as he took office in 2020, he implemented a purchasing policy that would avoid such an error.
The auditors also reported that the city made purchases for the depot district projects, but failed to keep sufficient records.
Local governments making their own project purchases isn't unusual.
Governments buy project materials so as to keep costs down. That's because when a county or city makes purchases, they don’t have to pay sales tax, which saves money, Williams said.
But that doesn't let cities and counties off the hook when it comes to keeping records.
“We noted that several owner direct purchases on the Depot District construction projects did not have documentation of quotes or bids per the city’s purchasing policy,” auditors wrote. “We recommend that contracts specify whether the city or contractor is responsible for obtaining and maintaining documentation of quotes and bids related to owner direct purchases.”
The auditors reported that they must report any contract or grant noncompliance or abuse, but that “in connection with our audit, we did not note any and such findings.”
The city hired Clancy & Theys as a contractor at risk, meaning the company is committed to a maximum cost for any project the company provides for the city.
The city originally hired the construction company as the city's contractor at risk by way of piggybacking off of a previous Osceola County contract, Williams told the Chronicle. The city also used the contractor to build the city’s war memorial, visitors center, community garden, and Valerie Theatre.
Williams and city finance director Richard LaCondre both told the Chronicle that city staff was mostly shut out of the depot district projects as well as other downtown ventures. The two said that city staff were not included in project design, management or oversight.
“We were not involved and not part of it,” Williams told the Chronicle about the Depot District.
LaCondre said DiGiovanni hired outside, part-time staff to work with the contractor and city staff were excluded.
Williams said there was little the current city administration could do now but to “bring closure” and that to ensure the city’s future projects “were fully transparent.”
Contacted by the Chronicle earlier this year, DiGiovanni said he could not comment.
He said he continues to be a member of a Florida association for city managers and it would be improper to comment about the city. He also said that he could not discuss the issues given that any documentation about the projects were in the city’s possession and not his own.
Williams said that even the bid process by which the city selected Clancy & Theys was confusing.
Williams told the Chronicle that there were no records the Depot District project was bid out in a typical manner whereby companies place closed bids and the city clerk later opened them in a public setting.
Instead, what documents do exist show that Clancy & Theys was awarded the bid and the Depot District project was later broken into six individual units. Williams said the six individual projects should have been bid out individually.
Williams said he's requested more information from Clancy & Theys about how it got the depot district contractor job and was told by the company it would respond in writing.
Until now, the depot district project was always touted publicly as a success. But the audit and reports that city staff were kept out of the construction and oversight process leaves the project with something of a black eye.
Council members said they were disappointed by the lack of a paper trail.
“We all don’t like surprises and this is one I’m not liking,” Councilwoman Jacquie Hepfer said. “This is all very disappointing.”
Williams said that the he immediately put in controls after assuming the top city job that would “not ever allow this to happen again.”
Williams was DiGiovanni’s assistant city manager.
City Council president David Ryan said the most important move for the city now was to have better safeguards in place controlling such projects.
Clancy & Theys did not immediately return calls for this story. Williams said he is not suggesting any wrongdoing but that the city should have kept better oversight of the projects and involved the city council more.
But it isn’t just the Depot District that has created problems and a headache for Williams.
The city had similar problems with the city Community Garden.
That project had a maximum price of $197,532, according to city records. But the project eventually would cost the city $289,655. Williams again told the Chronicle that the garden was one overseen by DiGiovanni and Clancy & Theys and there were no documents the city had to adequately explain why the price was allowed to skyrocket.
The Inverness visitors center, completed in 2018 by Clancy & Theys, also finished over budget.
The maximum cost of the facility on Dampier on Street, a block from Wallace Brooks Park, was $499,595, according to city documents with the contractor.
The final cost was $675,804, according to city documents. Williams said the city doesn’t have adequate documents to explain how the project was allowed to increase in price.
DiGiovanni would not comment, citing he was not the custodian of the documents.
When council members learned of the final cost of the visitor’s center late last year, they said they were astounded and never asked to approve any spending changes.
As for the visitor’s center final price, Mayor Bob Plaisted said the previous management presented the council with an initial cost, but another one when it was completed.
“I was blown away by it,” Plaisted told the Chronicle. “(But) the reality is it came in more than expected.”
The city eventually moved out of the visitor’s center and back to city hall. The city now rents out the facility.
Councilwoman Linda Bega said it would not likely benefit the city to explore why the costs rose. But she said that she remembered the costs rising.
Now the best step for the city is “to move forward,” she said.
This week, Williams told the goal now was to ensure this doesn’t happen again “and to move on.”