The best-paid jobs on the city of Augusta’s payroll aren’t held by city employees, but by independent contractors.
For the past decade, Heery International has garnered $9.5 million in fees. On Tuesday, the Augusta Commission is set to approve another contract extension with Heery that would keep its employees on the city’s books for two more years as overseers of sales tax-funded construction projects.
The firm has heralded the opening – “on time and under budget” – of the Augusta Judicial Center, the new sheriff’s administration building, the Augusta Convention Center, the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library and the Reynolds Street parking deck over the past four years.
Little independent data, though, are available to back up Heery’s contentions, given that the company sets and adjusts the project budgets, then reports back on savings.
One example is the judicial center. Heery’s original contract lists the courthouse as a $72 million project. The building turned out to be smaller and woefully lacking in parking when it opened in 2010. Heery listed the project budget as $67 million and claimed a $5 million savings for the city.
Project delays have been blamed on others, such as business owners who sued the city in unsuccessful attempts to force the government to change its bidding process in major construction projects.
In a letter requesting the two-year extension, Heery Vice President Dennis LaGatta points to 2011 litigation over the city’s award of a construction contract to Turner Construction for the remodeling of the municipal building as the cause for the project’s delay.
There was an injunction in effect for a few months, but changes to the scope of the project delayed renovations for three months more. The remodeling job that taxpayers approved for $14 million is now a $40 million project.
Butch Gallop, who became a subconsultant with Heery in 2003, said Heery can’t be faulted for doing what the city wants, including the use of “construction manager at-risk” contracts instead of “hard bids” to allow for greater local participation by subcontractors.
“We’re an extension of staff,” Gallop said. “We have to adhere to what Augusta-Richmond County asks us to do.”
He said the firm’s 10-year tenure is evidence of its success in Augusta.
“At the end of the day, it’s about our performance,” he said. “Augusta-Richmond County is pleased with the work Heery does.”
Still, Augusta has paid Heery hundreds of thousands of dollars for work on buildings not built, such as $188,709 in fees for a new public works building and $244,270 for a government administration building. The projects helped form the basis for Heery’s initial $4.1 million, three-year contract that the commission approved without public debate in 2003.
Other projects in that original budget included $56,640 for a performing arts center, $390,480 for a new civic center and $326,814 for a new planning and licensing facility, none of which has materialized.
Heery has always remained safely below its maximum contract amount, though the maximum has always included budgeted funding for abandoned projects.
Augusta Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said Heery is “doing a fine job” in construction management and community outreach, despite the firm’s high fees, project delays and payments for work on buildings never completed.
“You have to eat it sometime,” Johnson said. “We spend a lot of money, a lot of time on things that don’t happen. Sometimes it gets us to a position where we understand we may not have needed that building.”
Heery works hard to win support from the commission, according to campaign finance reports and documents released in 2007 litigation between Heery and the Dekalb County (Ga.) School District that remains unresolved.
The firm has made campaign contributions, such as a 2009 donation to candidate Bobby Hankerson, described in a Heery memo as “a former commissioner that has supported Heery at the onset of our contract with ARC (Augusta-Richmond County) six years ago.” The firm also provided access to its Georgia Dome box seats to several Augusta Commission members, city employees and a few Richmond County school board members.
A schedule of 2010 Atlanta Falcons games lists school board members Eloise Curtis, Jimmy Atkins and Jack Padgett; Johnson and Commissioner Alvin Mason; procurement Director Geri Sams and several Heery personnel attending the Oct. 3 game against the San Francisco 49ers. Mason, Gallop, Johnson and Heery are listed as attending the Nov. 8 game against the Washington Redskins. Commissioners Joe Jackson, Mason and Johnson and then-Commissioner Calvin Holland are shown as attending the Dec. 6 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, each with a guest, and former Commissioner Joe Bowles is listed as attending the Dec. 13 game against the New Orleans Saints. On the same schedule, Gallop and Mason are listed as attending the Jan. 2, 2011, game against the Carolina Panthers.
A 2009 Atlanta Braves schedule shows unnamed commissioners attending July 1, July 17 and Aug. 16 games.
Jackson said he had attended one of the Braves games “right after I was elected” and was prepared to refund the money and end the city’s contract with Heery.
“We have nothing else to build,” he said.
Two commissioners – Johnson and Mason – made generic requests to Heery for payments, either for their campaigns or for community events tied to their tenure on the commission. Both letters, which appear to be on city stationery, show Mason and Johnson seeking money for community breakfasts, newsletters, neighborhood association awards, donations to nonprofits and scholarships.
“Please make all checks out to The Committee to Elect Alvin D. Mason,” states an August 20, 2009, memo seeking about $9,800 in payments, including 12 community breakfasts at $400 each, 12 newsletters at $150 each and 12 neighborhood association awards at $100 each. Johnson, who had received a $500 check for a breakfast Aug. 19, wrote a similar request for support.
Asked to comment, Mason said he was preoccupied with Saturday funeral arrangements of his neighbors and had no comment.
Johnson said there was nothing wrong with his accepting money from Heery for community breakfasts and other events.
“Anytime you do outreach in the community, that’s public service,” he said.
Heery had no qualms about helping out. On Oct. 7, 2009, a Heery memo indicates it was ready to assist “as election time draws near and a change in appointment for the mayor pro tem is imminent,” approving $1,500 each for Mason and Johnson.
Terry Taylor, a board member for the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said any gift to an elected official, however small, undermines confidence in government, while favors create a sense of obligation.
“Whenever money is involved, or gifts, we should always ask questions,” he said. “Businesses don’t spend money for no reason.”
Heery hopes to earn its highest fee yet – $1.97 million – from the municipal building if allowed to proceed, according to the request.
Another delayed project – a new bus operations and maintenance facility – was voted on to Heery’s project list last month. The city and the school board purchased a vast south Augusta tract several years ago, but although the school system’s new facility has been open a few years, the city has yet to break ground on its part of the project.
Heery’s new proposal also includes its first foray into use of the new sales tax-funding transportation projects. The firm estimates a $280,326 fee to assist Daniel Field airport with the $1 million installation of new hangar doors, one of a handful of air projects on the tax project list.
Commission member Jackson said he wasn’t surprised Heery tapped into the transportation tax funding.
“They’re going to find a way to do it,” he said. “We could use that money to give our own people cost-of-living raises.”
Heery also requires $1.4 million to finish renovations and expansions at the Charles B. Webster Detention Center, according to the proposal.