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Saturday, December 2

BRATTLEBORO -- In the next few weeks, federal officials are expected to give the town a report card on how it managed money used to build the parking garage and start renovations on Union Station. The Federal Transit Administration has been reviewing finances for the so-called multi-modal project to determine whether the town complied with regulations attached to the $5 million it received in grants.

Town leaders are predicting they won't make the grade with the FTA. And they're counting on some specific criticism about the way they disbursed and documented funds related to New England Management, a private firm that has managed the project for the last six years.

The missing contract

New England Management has organized design and construction of the $10 million Transportation Center, as well as the $4.2 million plan to upgrade Union Station. The firm's owner and director, Tom Appel, led the work, facilitating subcontractors and attending endless public meetings on the projects.

The town has paid New England Management more than $500,000 for its service over six years, according to a review of financial documents conducted by the Reformer.

But the work, and payment for it, occurred without a formal contract. That was revealed this summer when the Selectboard requested a copy of the contract and neither Town Manager Jerry Remillard, Tom Appel nor the town attorney could locate a copy. It's an element of the project that could be censured by FTA this month.

The story of what happened to the contract might never be known. For his part, Remillard has said he's sure a contract was drafted and that he recalls seeing it, years ago, on his desk.

"Was it a rough draft or was it signed? I don't know," Remillard said.

Most municipal contracts -- particularly those for work as significant as project manager -- are reviewed by Town Attorney Bob Fisher.

Fisher says he was never asked to work on a contract for New England Management, outside of an interim agreement that was signed and settled in 1998, before the multi-modal project officially began.

"I've never seen a contract except an interim one," Fisher told the Reformer this week.

And that begs the question: was there ever a contract?

If there wasn't, Fisher pointed out, "an oral contract is not illegal."

"Everyone's making a huge to-do, and probably rightly so, about the fact that nobody can find this contract," Fisher said. "Whether it ever existed or not -- obviously this is a contract that needs to be in writing and should have been. ... But it only needs to be in writing because the FTA requires it."

According to Paul Griffo, a spokesman for the FTA, the agency expects any grant recipients to maintain a contract with private firms that are paid with federal funds.

"Grantees shall maintain a contract administration system that ensures that contractors perform in accordance with the terms, conditions, and specifications of their contracts or purchase orders," the FTA spells out in its "Best Practices Procurement Manual."

Since town officials discovered the contract was missing, the Selectboard has ordered several steps be taken to rectify the situation.

First, they planned to memorialize the existing agreement with New England Management. Several Selectboard executive sessions were spent on the issue, unsuccessfully so far: neither the town nor the firm can settle on terms for a contract.

Fisher, who has been leading negotiations, declined to comment as the talks are ongoing.

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The Selectboard also set out to restart the bidding process for a multi-modal project manager. This fall, they released a request for proposals and accepted bids from New England Management and two more firms, SVE Associations and Gordon Bristol Consulting.

But in the last two weeks, the bidding process was called off. The FTA issued the town a warning that the language in its request for proposals didn't adequately explain its procurement requirements. Any contract awarded to a firm, the agency told the town, would not be eligible for federal funding.

At the same time, the FTA also put the entire multi-modal project on hold, pending completion of its financial review.

That's left some major questions unanswered about the cost and the fate of Union Station, which is still in its design phase. But it's also left the project manager work -- which firm is doing it and precisely under what terms -- in limbo.

The Reformer recently obtained copies of invoices submitted to the town by New England Management over the last six years.

They comprise hundreds of pages of bills, made out separately for work on the Transportation Center and Union Station and they total $503,120.

The invoices list the hours Appel and one to two other staff members at New England Management logged while working on the project.

They also list the rate at which Appel and the other employees are paid -- ranging from $45 to $72 an hour. The only description of the work is "professional services." The specifics of the work completed by staff are not mentioned.

The bills are as low as $500 and as high as roughly $12,000.

"There is no standard for submitting invoices," Remillard explained to the Reformer. "It depends on the job and the detail required."

For a large part of the multi-modal project, Remillard said he was working closely with Appel and "saw the amount of hours that were actually in excess of what was being billed."

"I certainly didn't have concerns about the billing. If I had questions, I'd call him up and he'd explain it," he said.

The sparse invoices might also be scrutinized by the FTA this month.

"It's implied that grantees will be able to account for the services that are being rendered and paid for," Paul Griffo, of the FTA, said. "A lot of it is common sense. Just standard accounting practices. You don't pay for something unless you know what it is you're being billed for."

Since controversy around the multi-modal project sparked this summer, the Selectboard has imposed new standards on how New England Management records and submits bills for work done on the project. The firm's last invoice, submitted on Sept. 15, 2006, for $1,675, adheres to those standards. Appel offered a brief narrative for each of the five weeks represented in the bill.

The week of Aug. 6, for example, includes 21.5 hours of work and the following explanation, excerpted here.

"Thursday evening of this week was a Town Meeting on the project for members and public. Time was spent with updates with town staff in preparation for the meeting. Other minor prep time was spent in additional calls with town staff on inquiries."

In his hundreds of local projects, including assignments from other municipalities, Appel said that level of detail has never been required in an invoice. He called Brattleboro's request an anomaly and "kind of a red herring, in my opinion."

"The feds sometimes want to see time sheets," Appel said, "But I don't think the FTA has asked for it in this case, unless they asked the town directly. I've not been aware of it."