Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 28, 2013

Audit: GT Metro overbilled for new fire station

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — The federal government required Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department to withdraw more than $231,000 in grant reimbursement claims related to their newest Garfield Township fire station.

An audit by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security questioned over $591,000 in charges from a $2.8 million federal grant awarded to Metro to build a new fire station completed in 2011.

The audit questioned charges for contract administration, ineligible costs, and no-bid contracts for design, engineering, and landscape costs.

"Our bids came in significantly under where the original grant was, so there was some creativity involved since we had the additional room to get whatever we could," said Chuck Korn, Garfield Township supervisor and chairman of the authority board that oversees the three-township fire department. "Kind of the 'no-harm in asking' philosophy."

Metro billed $2.76 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that administered the 2009 grant as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. FEMA withheld the final payment of $178,000 requested by Metro in 2011, pending resolution of the billing issues raised by the audit completed in 2012.

Metro officials agreed during the initial audit to remove $69,828 for work performed prior to the grant. Metro eventually convinced FEMA to accept all but $161,552 of the remaining charges and recently received its final payment of about $16,000.

The largest chunk of the questioned costs that later earned approval came from no-bid contracts for $220,349 to Advantage Design for architectural services and construction management, plus $57,937 to engineering firm Gourdie-Fraser Inc.

Metro hired Advantage Design in 2008 to do prototype designs for a new fire station because the firm had done work for it on two other stations, said Pat Parker, Metro Fire Chief. When Metro received the grant, officials amended the contract to obtain detailed plans and construction management from Advantage.

Gourdie-Fraser was hired because it is Garfield Township's engineering firm and had already done survey and topographical work at the township's Silver Lake Recreational Area, where the new fire station was sited, Parker said.

A project had to be "shovel-ready" to qualify for funding and that can't happen without design and engineering, Parker said. Bidding out the projects to repeat the work would have cost more in money and time, but the mistake was not obtaining upfront FEMA approval, he said.

FEMA said it agreed with Metro's decision, but disallowed $69,828 Metro included for work done by the firms prior to the grant.

"We don't do this every day, so we were learning as we go," Parker said.

FEMA split on nine other charges totaling over $313,000, denying some, allowing one, and approving portions of the rest. It denied $81,244 worth of bills for equipment necessary to a fire station but not eligible for grant funding; denied $4,314 to lease land from Garfield Township, and denied a $25,811 radio system as ineligible.

It reduced charges for legal services, grant administration, security systems, and landscaping, but approved $10,225 for built-in bookcases.

The fire board for Metro had set aside a 10 percent contingency in its public improvement budget in case of fire station cost overruns, Parker said. The project came in under budget, but Metro was able to use those funds to cover the almost $274,000 of ineligible costs, including $42,535 for furniture and equipment that it didn't attempt to recover from FEMA.