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PARD unburies contract infringement with cemetery contractor

Monday, October 29, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Recently, city auditors found major flaws in how the city manages its contracts, and based on the testimony by a citizen at the Oct. 23 Parks and Recreation Board meeting, the city’s cemetery contract may fall into that category.

“We have a contractor that is not complying with his contract,” said Sharon Blythe, a concerned citizen who has been advocating for the upkeep of Austin Memorial Park Cemetery since her husband passed away in 1989.

She noted that the current contract that ISI (Interment Services, Inc.) has held with the city of Austin for nearly 30 years explicitly states that the contractor is not allowed to store equipment on cemetery grounds, but he does so anyway. Also, she said that the current contractor is tearing out stones and not putting them back completely and that “he drips oil all over the stones.”

“There’s some red flags being raised about the work that’s being done there,” said Board Member Dawn Lewis after listening to her testimony.

However, Anthony Segura, the assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department, noted that there had been issues with the contractor in the past but that they were “immediately remedied and cleaned up.”

Despite the identified issues and complaints from the public, the Parks and Recreation Department is looking to renew their contract at a $30,000 increased annual cost for three years with ISI. The reason for this, Segura explained, is because even though the department sent out a request for bids, no vendor came back with one, not even ISI. According to Segura, the city’s current contractor filled out their application with “no bid.”

After understanding the circumstances surrounding the parks department’s request to renew their contract with ISI for the next three years, the board voted to disapprove their request. The vote passed with Board Chair Jane Rivera and Board Member Tom Donovan opposing the motion. Board members Romteen Farasat, Randy Mann, Richard DePalma, and Rick Cofer were absent. Board Member Michael Casias left before the vote was taken.

“The Parks and Recreation Department … does not relish being in the situation we’re in,” said Acting Director Kimberly McNeeley.

Segura explained to the board that no negotiation was possible with the current vendor. The city is currently in a 120-day holdover period with ISI during which time they sent out 425 bid request solicitation emails. According to Segura, only one person expressed interest in the contract, but did not bid.

Board Member Fred Morgan suggested that perhaps the fact that ISI has held the contract for 30 years was a deterrent for others to even apply. “The word on the street is he’s got the job. Why should I bid?” he speculated.

“If you have something like that … something isn’t going well,” noted Rivera. “It is very puzzling.”

Marian Moore, a procurement specialist with the city’s Purchasing Department, explained that this contract solicitation was an atypical one. Since the Parks and Recreation Department is planning to bring interment and disinterment services in-house within the next three years, they were only able to solicit at three-year agreement with two one-year options.

McNeeley explained that when the parks department does take these services on, it will save $200,000 a year. Right now the city is paying ISI $800,000 a year – without the proposed increase – but according to Segura, “It could be plus or minus depending on if there are more deaths in the year.”

However, putting cemetery services under the city is easier said than done. McNeeley noted that doing so will require a one-time purchase of about $500,000 worth of equipment and a period of staff training. She explained that by continuing the current contract with ISI, the department will allow the department to properly train their staff. The budget for the required staff and equipment has already been approved by City Council.

In spite of staff’s explanations, the board members were still wary of the circumstances that allowed for ISI to renegotiate their contract. “I think we should just go back and tell them to keep doing it for the same price,” said Casias. “I don’t like these last-minute ‘over the coals’ deadlines.”

Still, since City Council is scheduled to hear the case for this contract on Nov. 15, the board was forced to make a decision. The one they chose resulted in the disapproval of the contract renewal as it is currently written.

However, Rivera noted at the end of the day, “It’s still the Council’s decision to make.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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