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Some say Bridgeport’s emergency purchases haven’t all been urgent

February 1, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — When is an emergency use of taxpayer dollars truly an emergency?

That’s what City Council members are trying to get to the bottom of, when it comes to municipal departments’ no-bid or “qualified” purchases.

“These are things we need to look at,” Council President Aidee Nieves said at January’s Budget Committee meeting.

The council’s interest was piqued in the fall by an anonymous letter accusing the Public Facilities Department, which oversees the maintenance of roads, sidewalks, buildings and parks, plus hauls trash and recycling, of flouting Bridgeport’s purchasing rules.

Specifically, the letter complained about the escalating costs of paving at the new Public Facilities garage, which grew from $185,822 to $678,899.

Then last month council members were upset to learn about the Economic Development Office’s emergency purchase of dozens of new decorative light poles for the St. Mary’s by the Sea neighborhood. That $470,000 qualified expense was expected to increase by another $20,000 or $25,000 as the city worked to address homeowners’ complaints that the new lights are too bright.

“I am extremely concerned about the lights,” Nieves said. “How can we spend almost a half million on a park area when there are main streets with lights out?”

Questions of legitimacy

Department heads have defended the paving and lights in prior interviews with Hearst Connecticut Media.

Public Facilities Director John Ricci has said Vaz, the contractor building the new municipal garage, was asked to pave additional sections of the property which also required site grading and drainage.

“It just seems like a gross violation,” said Councilwoman Maria Zambrano Viggiano, a Budget Committee co-chair. “We ask people to pay a 54 mill (tax) rate. There are potholes all over the city. ... I just think it’s ridiculous and a gross mismanagement of funds.”

Tom Gill, head of Economic Development, had told Hearst that the St. Mary’s light poles — 110 in all — were an emergency installation because the two-decade-old originals could potentially cause electrical shocks.

But Finance Director Ken Flatto admitted to the Budget Committee last month that while there are “legitimate qualified purchases,” the process for authorizing them has been “unfortunately quite loose.”

Council members last scrutinized emergency purchases five years ago, after Hearst reported on then-Mayor Bill Finch’s administration buying a $400,000, no-bid driveway for a developer living in Stratford.

In April, 2013, the city, unbeknownst to the council and the general public, waived competitive bidding and hired Manuel “Manny” Moutinho to build a 1,000-foot gravel driveway for his waterfront mansion and for a handful of neighboring property owners.

Finch’s office argued at the time that the city owed Moutinho and his neighbors a driveway because their existing, dirt access-way was needed for a runway safety project at nearby Sikorsky Memorial Airport, located in Stratford but owned by Bridgeport.

Tightening rules

Current Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration had been focused on making reforms to smaller municipal purchases. City guidelines require three informal quotes for expenses between $1,000 to $7,500.

As reported in 2016, Ganim aide Ed Adams had been reviewing those expenses and found “numerous cases” of smaller, incremental purchases adding up to major costs which should have gone out to bid — $39,180 for uniforms, $52,000 for air conditioning/heating services; $54,620 for automotive work; $78,155 to a custodial firm.

But as a result of the recent, anonymous allegations against public facilities, and council members’ concerns, Flatto, Acting Purchasing Director Berndt Tardy and the City Attorney’s Office established new procedures in mid-December for qualified purchases.

The biggest change is a new request form requiring department heads to provide a more detailed explanation about why they want to circumvent the bid process, to attest that they “made all reasonable attempts to receive the best value for the city” and to explain whether they have “a personal or business relationship” with the vendor or contractor.

Tardy’s office and the city’s Chief Administrative Office are also supposed to do a more thorough review of the emergency requests. Flatto said his department also has a role, because it ultimately pays the bills.

“We’ve held up payments,” Flatto said.

“Quite frankly, I’ve noticed quite a reduction in (qualified purchase) requests,” Tardy told the budget committee.

Ganim said in an interview that the new procedures “may be more cumbersome, but I think that’s the preference, so you don’t get questions from anonymous letters.”

“These forms are going to make it much more deliberate and explicit,” he said.

The mayor, who lives in Black Rock, added that he did talk to the Economic Development staff about the St. Mary’s lights. Ganim said he had no reason to believe the expenditure was an inappropriate emergency use of city money.

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