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Follow the Numbers... If You Can!

At my place of work, part of my job is to review, approve and sign every piece of business-related items. Estimates, contracts, purchase orders, expense reports, timecards, checks, etc., etc.

Most of the time it’s very straightforward. I see a bill for $1000. If we ordered the item and that’s the correct amount, great! All good. I put my totally illegible, but I’m sure highly distinctive, signature on the paper, and it moves along.

Sometimes, though, I will see a bill where¬† I am being asked to approve an amount that’s different from what’s on the bill. Why is that? Some goods and services – employee benefits are a good example – are handled centrally by a Corporate department. That department will send out copies of the bill to other corporate departments or shows like mine, with the specific amount each unit is to pay written in.

In those situations, an additional sheet or sheets are attached to the bill that show how that sub-amount was calculated, to the penny. So I know when I approve an amount that’s different from what the bill or contract says, I am confident I know that the different amount is the correct amount.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s standard business practice, anywhere and in any place that’s at all well and transparently run.

You know where I am going with this, right?

Let’s talk some more about Resolution #18-456, passed unanimously last week by Trenton’s City Council. This item approved the winning proposal, from Parkeon Inc, one of six vendors who submitted proposals in February of this year for new street Parking Meter and Kiosk services to be installed mostly in Downtown Trenton. This Resolution, as discussed at some length yesterday – sorry, sometimes these things do take a couple of thousand words to explain! – did not appear on the official Agenda and Docket for this Council’s final meeting on June 21, and was not accorded the usual prior public notice as called for by the NJ Open Public Meetings Act. You can look at yesterday’s post for more background and information. In short, from the information available as of yesterday and today, I consider the City’s process to evaluate all the submitted proposals and recommend a final selection to have been fatally flawed. The City’s selection of Parkeon may also, due to the fact that the proposed award of a contract to the winning bidder would be made way after the 60-day deadline required by NJ Purchasing Law, be invalid.

Today I want to focus on what the City Council members who voted unanimously – with the exception of the absent Phyllis Holly-Ward – were given to make their decision. Remember they saw this for the first time no earlier than the 5:30 PM time that last Thursday’s meeting started.

Here’s the link to the Resolution, along with the attached materials that was given to each Council member, according to City Clerk Dwayne Harris, who emailed this to me yesterday.

Here are the two pages, Pages 31 and 32 of the package, prepared by the City to summarize and compare all six proposals:

summary1summary2

There’s a lot of information on these Summary pages, so I highlighted the areas I want to draw your attention to.

You’ll notice that for most of the cost information that these Summary sheets are intended to, well, you know, Summarize, the reader is asked to go back to the Original Proposals from each company and look for that information.

“But,” I hear you asking, “this wasn’t announced as being on that Meeting’s approved and adequately-noticed Agenda! Council members wouldn’t have known to bring their copies of each proposal. Besides, why didn’t the City provide those numbers on the Summary Sheets?”

Good Question!!

I don’t have an answer to that. Right now. Keep reading!

As part of the Resolution package, the City did provide some cost information. Here are Pages 33-36 of the Resolution Package:

page 33page 34page 35page 36Did you follow all the way down here? Good!

Did you notice a few things? Such as:

1) These four sheets look to compare cost information for only two vendors: Parkeon and IPS. There are a few numbers for two other vendors, Ventek and Hectronic, on the summary sheet. But for “Total Price” for those two companies, or any cost numbers at all from POM, Inc. (the sixth, B & B Parking, was dropped from consideration because of a Fatal Flaw in their proposal), the Summary Sheets direct the Reader to “SEE ATTACHED BREAKDOWN OF PROPOSAL PAGE.”

2) The first page of the Resolution states it proposes that the City enter into a contract with Parkeon “in an amount not to exceed $1,200,000” for three years, with options to extend for a fourth and fifth year. However, I challenge you to find the figure of $1,200,000 printed anywhere in the sheets above, or in the actual Parkeon proposal (Pages 23-28) itself.

In the sheets above, you can see a figure of $602,901 for what’s labeled “Upfront Costs.” In addition to this, there’s a figure of $56,580 labeled “1 Year Operating,” and what looks like (the last digit is cut off) $169,740 labeled “3-Year Operat” (also cut off).

If you add the “Upfront Costs,” “3-Year Operat” and 2 of the “1 Year Operating” numbers to make a 5-year term, that all adds up to $885,801. That’s nowhere near $1,200,000.

Where’s the rest? Somewhere else in the proposal? Somewhere else in the Summary Sheets? In some other documents that didn’t get attached to the Resolution Package?

Finally, how do any of the numbers on the Winning Bid compare to the other Vendors who submitted proposals?

The answer is, We Don’t Know. And We Can’t Tell. The Summary sheets tell us to “See Attached Breakdown,” and there are none. You can’t figure out what numbers go with what option, and with what vendor.

In other words, this is all a Freaking Mess.

Just as at my job I will not approve any piece of business if the amount I am asked to approve isn’t the same one as printed on that piece of business, and there’s nothing attached to show how the requested amount has been calculated, I would have sent back this Resolution unsigned without a second thought, along with some stern words for the department that asked me to approve it.

There’s simply no way in hell, based on these sheets – or in the Parkeon Proposal – to see where the request figure of $1,200,000 on the Resolution came from.

But every member of City Council last Thursday approved this. Every member of Council thought this was dandy. Every member of Council felt they had all the information they needed to make an informed decision.

All I can say is, Thank Goodness that four of these guys will not be back on Council next year.

As to returning re-elected members Marge Caldwell-Wilson and George Muschal: WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?!?!?!?!

I want to say here that I haven’t yet really looked closely at Parkeon’s proposal, nor those from the other vendors. They may likely be just fine and perfectly suited to solve Trenton’s downtown parking problem, after at least five years of no movement or progress at all. I have nothing to say at this point about any of them.

It’s just the way that the Administration and Council handled the matter that was bullshit.

Final point: I asked above, Why didn’t the City provide all the cost numbers on the Summary Sheets? And why did the City want to send the Council members to “SEE ATTACHED BREAK-DOWN OF PROPOSAL PAGE?”

I don’t know for sure. But, along with everything else we know today that’s associated with this Resolution:

  • It was a last-minute item added to the June 21 docket without adequate notice;
  • The Trenton Downtown Association didn’t know this action would be taken to award a contract;
  • There was absolutely no transparency in any of the financial numbers submitted by the six bidding vendors in the materials given to Council at the last minute, and no way to compare bids;

This still seems to me what it did yesterday: an effort by the outgoing Administration to pull a fast one before they leave office at the end of this week.

And, in this matter, each member of this Council utterly failed last week – one last time – in their obligation to protect the public’s interest, and ensure that financial decisions they make and approve are done with care, attention and full transparency.

We still don’t know why. Perhaps now we should try to find out?

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