Money down the drain?
KANKAKEE — The agency that runs the regional sewer plant wants to know what happened to the more than $750,000 that was spent on a still-unused software application.
The Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency, or KRMA, is considering suing its former longtime executive director, Richard Simms, over the issue. In April, Simms resigned from the agency, which serves Kankakee, Bourbonnais, Bradley and Aroma Park.
From 2014 to 2018, KRMA paid Simms’ firm, Simms Engineering Ltd., $768,148 for the software application, according to the agency.
In an email to the Daily Journal, Simms said 87.5 percent to 90 percent of the money for the software application passed through his firm to subcontractors, which he did not identify. He said the application was intended to operate the sewage treatment plant, allowing for reduced staffing.
In September, the agency’s attorney, M. Neal Smith, of the Robbins Schwartz law firm, sent a letter demanding Simms provide an accounting of where the money for the software application went. Smith also asked for a list of subcontactors and their contact information.
In an interview with the Daily Journal, the attorney said, “In my view, it looks like there has been some self-dealing by Mr. Simms in connection with the software application.”
Smith said in a later email to the newspaper that his office was still investigating “certain activities” of Simms, including those that appear “improper and unauthorized.”
Smith said it appeared as if the agency paid money to Simms to buy software that Simms or an affiliated company, instead, used to develop new software. Simms or an affiliated company, Smith said, now appear to claim they own the software and intend to sell it on the open market to other organizations.
“In exchange for the money it spent, KRMA only received source code for uncompleted software that KRMA is not able to use,” Smith said.
He said Simms and his attorney, Chris Bohlen, have so far refused to provide an accounting or even meet with KRMA officials to discuss what can be done “to rectify the financial loss.”
KRMA, Smith said, is considering all options, including a lawsuit against Simms and his firm.
In response, Bohlen said, “Everything Mr. Simms did was with the approval and request of the (KRMA) board.”
The agency’s board is made up of seven members, including four from Kankakee and one each from Bourbonnais, Bradley and Aroma Park.
The mayors of the four towns have appointed themselves as board members. They get paid $600 per monthly meeting, which typically lasts less than two hours. Officers receive more.
Two of the mayors, Kankakee’s Chasity Wells-Armstrong and Aroma Park’s Brian Stump, declined to comment on the dispute, saying it was a legal matter.
Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Schore said there was a potential for litigation.
“I’m getting more concerned by the day. KRMA has always been a challenging situation,” Schore said.
The board’s chairman, Bradley Mayor Bruce Adams, who makes $700 per meeting, did not return calls for comment.
The other Kankakee members — Kankakee aldermen Dennis Baron and Carl Brown and Limestone resident Marc Wakat — also did not return calls.
Last month, the Daily Journal filed an open records request with the agency seeking the invoices submitted by Simms for the last two years of his service.
His engineering firm pulled in $860,000 during that time. About 60 percent was spent on the software application, according to the invoices. The rest of the money — $344,000 — apparently went directly to Simms’ firm, about half of which was for “executive director” services.
Other items listed were work on environmental permits and construction management associated with $65 million in upgrades at the plant, Simms said.
“The board requested me to work with its outside legal counsel and the treatment plant designers to negotiate permit language, which would allow the plant to operate within legal limits...,” Simms said in a statement that was routed through Bohlen.
Simms said that while he was executive director, his firm had three to five employees.
A LONG TENURE
In 1987, Simms was recruited by the city of Kankakee to serve as the superintendent and engineer supervising the expansion of the city’s wastewater treatment plant to include Bradley, Bourbonnais and Aroma Park. The facility is along the Kankakee River and near the Kankakee Area YMCA.
In the early 1990s, the four towns formed a separate unit of government to provide sewage treatment services.
At that time, Simms Engineering was hired to provide executive director services and was re-appointed every year afterward through 2018, Simms said.
He said that when he told the board he would no longer accept re-appointment, he confirmed the next generation software would be completed.
“It was and remains my opinion that the new software application would allow for staffing reductions at KRMA as they presently continue to function on a more or less manual mode of operation,” Simms said. “Unfortunately, the agency board of directors has chosen not to utilize the software.”
Dave Tyson, of Tyson Engineering, who now has the executive director contract, confirmed the agency was not using the software application.
When Simms spoke to the Kankakee City Council about his departure in April, they appeared to be on good terms.
Simms, in his early 70s, was involved in the operation of the plant for 31 years, having started his career there under Mayor Russell Johnson and then continuing under Mayors Donald Green, Nina Epstein and Wells-Armstrong.
It is estimated the treatment plant serves about 60,000 residents, 31 industrial facilities and some 700 commercial users.
Wastewater treatment also is provided to Manteno and Chebanse through intergovernmental agreements with Kankakee.
At the council meeting, Alderman Baron praised Simms for his leadership and vision.
“The city would be a lot different if he weren’t ever here, and he goes about his job quietly,” Baron said. “(T)here are ways that we will never know how he has positively impacted the city.”
Simms, though, downplayed his role, saying the scope and success of the treatment plant only was possible because the City Council made good decisions.
“I appreciate being part of that,” he said.