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Watchdog questions local agency

November 19, 2018

KANKAKEE — In April 2004, Barack Obama was a little-known state senator from Chicago, Donald Trump was a new reality show star, “Friends” still was on the air and flip phones were ever-present.

Much changed in the following years. But the contract for the executive director at the local sewage treatment plant did not.

Recently, the Daily Journal filed an open records request for the agreement that was in force during the last year of Richard Simms’ service as head of the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency, which runs the plant.

It took two weeks for KRMA to produce the document. Officials had to dig into their files to find the April 2004 agreement.

The contract called for Kankakee-based Simms Engineering to provide “executive director duties” and serve as the agency’s engineer for improvements to the plant. KRMA is under the operation of a seven-member board, with members appointed by the municipal governments in Kankakee, Bourbonnais, Bradley and Aroma Park.

Under the contract, the firm’s compensation would amount to $90 per hour with a maximum of 60 hours per month, or $5,400. The agreement indicated the scope of work could be changed by agreement; the Daily Journal has sought records to determine whether that has happened.

Under the contract’s 60-hour cap, Simms Engineering would have received $64,800 per year.

If the agency’s board increased Simms Engineering’s 60-hour cap with the rate of inflation, it would have risen to $88,000.

But that’s far from what the company actually got in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 fiscal years — $490,000 and $371,000, respectively.

The 14-year agreement with Simms Engineering did not define rates for particular duties. The company received $7,500 per month for executive director services. But there were other items on the company’s invoices (often listed in hard-to-decipher acronyms). The items included development of a software application, work on environmental permits and oversight of $65 million in treatment plant upgrades.

As the Daily Journal reported last week, the software application has caused a rift between the KRMA board and Simms Engineering. According to agency records, $768,000 was spent on the application from 2014 to 2018, but the agency said it only received source code for incomplete software.

The agency’s attorney, M. Neal Smith, said Richard Simms, along with possible affiliated companies, seems to be “self-dealing” by apparently intending to sell the developed software on the open market. As a result, Smith said, the agency is considering suing Simms Engineering.

With the software application, 87.5 percent to 90 percent of the money paid to the engineering firm went to subcontractors, Simms said in an email. KRMA has demanded the identities of the subcontractors.

The agency’s seven board members are not commenting or declining to return the Daily Journal’s calls on the Simms Engineering contract, so much remains unclear.

In April, Kankakee-based Tyson Engineering entered an agreement with KRMA, stating the company, led by Dave Tyson, would receive $11,250 per month for the first two months and $7,500 monthly afterward. Since then, the company has billed the agency $58,000 for executive director and other services, according to invoices the Daily Journal received this week. At that rate, Tyson Engineering will get $77,000 for the first year, far less than what Simms Engineering received.

The Tyson agreement is far more detailed than Simms’ was. It details an hourly rate for 40 different services, including project manager and IT coordinator. The rates range from $72 to $195.

Maryam Judar, an attorney and executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, described KRMA’s arrangement with Simms Engineering as “unusual.” She questioned why the agency’s board needed Simms as the middleman.

By Simms’ calculation, his firm ultimately received $77,000 to $96,000 of the software application spending, presumably for managing the project.

Judar said Simms could have handled the supervision of the contract as part of executive director services.

“At the very least, there should be a contract that defines what outcomes were expected from the $768,000 that was spent over these four years,” Judar said. “Why were they paying him (Richard Simms) extra per month to supervise the software application? Shouldn’t that be a part of his job as executive director?”

Judar said information on the software application project should be available for the public.

“The officials on the board should be held accountable, and they should have held Simms accountable,” she said. “There should have been way more oversight of this money.”

In emails through his attorney’s office, Simms said the KRMA board approved all expenses with his firm. He said the board decided not to use the software.

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