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Council members grant short-term cemetery services contract

Thursday, April 4, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

A skeptical Council Member Kathie Tovo peppered Parks and Recreation Department staff with questions last week, prior to Council’s authorizing an emergency, 120-day, $250,000 contract with Interment Services, Inc. to manage Austin’s five city cemeteries.


At the heart of the Tovo’s concern: why, after a well-documented litany of problems, was Interment getting another contract?


The contract expired on March 31, and the short-term renewal is designed to give the staff a chance to find another vendor. However, PARD officials say despite past problems with the firm, Interment was the only company that responded to the city’s last RFP.


“It was the maintenance and management and upkeep that was the main problem,” Tovo said of complaints received from the community about Interment’s work. She implored the Parks and Recreation officials to be “more specific about what we want and when it’s done.”


The three Parks and Recreation officials present stressed that it is only a “four-month bridge contract” to give them time to “work through the process with requests for proposals.” But concerns arose when it came to light that Interment was the only bidder for this business.


“For the emergency contact we have only one person that’s available for us and that is the current contractor,” said the project’s division manager, Troy Hatman.


Tovo pressed Hatman, “I guess I don’t understand whether there’s a distinction between ‘availability for an emergency contract’ or whether or not anybody else applied?”


No one else had applied.


“We actually had a proposal conference. We invited over 200 different firms. We actually reached out to the community, even went to Yellow Pages, those type of things,” said purchasing officer Byron Johnson, “Unfortunately they declined to bid on the long-term contract.”


The Parks and Recreation Department’s history with third-party contractors was the reason for Tovo’s questions. In 2010, the Council came close to terminating the recently expired contract after an audit by the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee found problems with how facilities had been maintained. The audit also cited Parks and Recreation for failing to manage the contract. (See In Fact Daily, July 12, 2010).


Additionally, the audit found that the Interment contract was cobbled together from old documents. There was no clarity and conflicting discrepancies in the language arose when the city’s Purchasing Office and Parks Department offered up differing documents at the outset of the audit.


There was even confusion as to the company’s name. During the 2010 controversy and through a March 27, 2013 community outreach meeting, the contractor was known as InterCare.


“This is a contract with Interment Services. Is this indeed the same contractor we have had in the past?” said Tovo.


“The answer to that is ‘yes,’” said Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley.


However, Hensley outlined preemptive steps being taken to ensure that the emergency contract has safeguards. These include merging the seven documents that constituted the previous contract into one, oversight from the purchasing and legal departments and in general a “more strategic approach.”


“We have now staff dedicated to overseeing this, we have better defined the specifics that need to be in place to help with division management,” said Hensley, “(This will) ensure that we are doing things in a more efficient, effective and sustainable manner.”


But Hensley conceded that companies that manage graveyards can be a little, well, different. “Does that mean there won’t be hiccups?” she said. “I don’t want to stand before you and tell you there won’t, because in cemetery management this is a really strange and rare bird.”

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