Little said about controversial spending

May 6, 2019

KANKAKEE — The city committee that oversees Kankakee’s utilities never approved spending more than a half million dollars for a software application that reportedly does not work. And it never held a full-fledged discussion about it — until the money was out the door.

This is according to five years of meeting minutes from the city’s Environmental Services Utility Board, which the Daily Journal recently obtained through an open records request.

Now officials say the city apparently has found the same type of software for a fraction of the cost.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s almost exactly the same situation that the separate board for the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency, which runs the regional sewer plant, is facing.

All the money went to Richard Simms, who headed both the Kankakee city utilities and KRMA for more than a quarter century until he retired a year ago.

KRMA paid Simms about $700,000 for the software. It’s unclear exactly what the city gave Simms. The numbers range from slightly more than $500,000 to $700,000.

Simms, who moved to Ohio last year, now is under federal investigation.

In the five years of meeting minutes, the Daily Journal identified two references to the software application before Simms retired.

The first reference was in April 2015: “We are doing an application to get away from paper. Communities are digitalizing everything. (An employee) would like to go to an iPad base. It is all internet-based; we will be working to get an application designed.”

The board took no action on the project, and there was no discussion of costs, according to the minutes.

In January 2018, just four months before Simms’ departure, the issue came up again. It was listed under “old business,” even though the issue had not been discussed in nearly three years, according to the minutes. The short item indicated the first part of the application had been launched. The next phase would be asset management.

“Employees will log on to their iPad and it will eliminate problems,” the minutes state.

Again, the board took no action and said nothing about the expenditures, according to the minutes.

Throughout the course of Simms’ last 20 months with the city, his monthly software payments from the city increased four times, a jump of 60 percent. The monthly payments started at $17,552 in February 2017, then jumped to $20,000 in June 2017, $22,000 in October 2017, $25,300 in May 2018 and $28,300 in September 2018. (The city has withheld the money for the September invoice.)

City officials have not explained how these increases came about.

In response to Daily Journal requests for comment, Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong has left many questions unanswered, saying she was doing so on the advice of city lawyers.

Utility board members Stacy Gall, Carl Brown, Tyler Tall and James Faford, all aldermen who have served on the utility board for much or all of the last five years, didn’t return calls for comment.

In a brief interview, former Alderman Dennis Baron said the minutes don’t reflect everything that took place during meetings. Asked whether Simms gave a lot of information about the software project, Baron said, “I don’t remember everything we discussed in those minutes and what wasn’t in those minutes.”

Simms left the city and KRMA on apparently good terms. At his final City Council meeting, the mayor, City Council and the audience gave Simms a standing ovation.

Last July, Simms attended a utilities board meeting. The minutes indicate Simms discussed the software application. He expressed concern the city had yet to pay him for “services already rendered.” He was referring to two bills, amounting to about $50,000, from the final months of his service. In October, Simms sued for the money.

In a utilities board meeting in November, members were told a company offered to do apparently similar software for the city for $80,000, about 15 percent of Simms’ price. The software, the board was told, could be up and running in six weeks. It’s unclear whether the city entered a contract with the company. Officials did not return calls.

If the 15-percent figure is correct, the city spent slightly more than $500,000 on the Simms version. However, Wells-Armstrong said in a September KRMA meeting the city had paid $700,000 for Simms’ software.

The exact figure is unknown. In mid-March, the Daily Journal filed a records request for the entire listing of payments to Simms since January 2014. The city has yet to answer.

Simms worked for the city and KRMA as a contractor, though his company, Simms Engineering. The city had no contract with Simms, which Wells-Armstrong, who only became mayor two years ago, has said was a mistake.

Simms’ last contract with KRMA was in 2004, but he received much higher pay than what that agreement called for.

In 2014, Simms formed another company, Plum Flower International, which apparently hired software developers from Russia, China and elsewhere to create the software application in question.

Simms didn’t return a message for comment.