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D.C.’s $40 million for snow removal criticized

By Aaron C. Davis Washington Post

WASHINGTON – D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration spent more than $40 million on snow removal for a single major storm last year, hiring contractors at whatever price they named and paying nearly $700,000 for hotel rooms and meals for workers in violation of federal procurement law, according to an audit.

In addition, more than $93,000 of the cost came from bank fees because officials charged tens of millions of dollars for snow removal on city credit cards, sending the balance on the government’s account soaring to roughly 20 times its usual level.

JPMorgan Chase took the unprecedented step of shutting off D.C.’s line of credit until some of the card balances could be paid, as The Washington Post reported last year.

In a letter to D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who requested the audit released Wednesday, D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson wrote that the costs, combined with the violation of federal rules, raise doubts about how much the federal government might reimburse D.C. under a federal disaster declaration that was issued by President Obama.

As the Jan. 22, 2016, storm, nicknamed “Snowzilla,” dumped as much as 22 inches of snow on the city, D.C. officials signed deals with dozens of construction companies, the auditor wrote.

The hourly rates paid for dump trucks, loaders, drivers and other support were often far in excess of past practice. They could be inconsistent. Some contractors were paid as much as 77 percent more than others for using the same type of equipment and providing the same services.

Officials at the city’s Department of Public Works “indicated that they did not seek to negotiate costs at all, and merely engaged independent contractors at the price they offered,” the audit said.

“It appears likely that the District paid substantially more than was necessary for snow removal services and the failure to set maximum prices or engage in negotiations raises the possibility that such overpayment will occur in the future,” the report said.

Patterson urged city leaders to negotiate with contractors before winter arrives and create controls on how much the contractors are paid.

Asked about the audit, Bowser (D) said she had not yet seen it, even though her administration submitted a detailed written response to the auditor two weeks ago.

At a Wednesday news conference on a different matter, the mayor said her administration was committed to fiscally sound decisions and had already identified areas for improvement. She also said she was proud the city was able to recover fully from the storm within a couple of days.

“One thing that the auditor probably didn’t cover was that we’ve had an expectation in our city that we shut down for snow, and I think we have to change that expectation. I have changed it for our administration,” Bowser said. “My expectation is that children will be able to go to school and that government will be able to open, and that businesses will be able to do business.”

The mayor challenged the auditor’s assertion that the city broke federal procurement rules, which are binding on D.C. and prohibit employees from being provided free food or lodging at their workplaces. She said it was proper to provide lodging and food for contractors who worked 12-hour shifts.

Some members of the D.C. Council criticized the administration for failing to follow well-known restrictions on the provision of food and lodging, thereby jeopardizing the city’s ability to qualify for federal reimbursement.

Former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) was among those who were most critical. Gray returned to city government this week as a council member.

“One can hope that they have learned something about planning from this,” he said. “We had rehearsals when I was mayor. There used to be a lot of planning and preparation and experience that went into handling these events.”

He added: “This was almost a panic reaction, and the shame of it is that there’s not much we can do to recoup some of the $40 million that was spent.”

Kevin Harris, the mayor’s spokesman, responded with a dig at Gray. “This wasn’t about planning, rehearsals or experience,” he said. “The fleet we inherited from the previous administration was inadequate, and the mayor wasn’t willing to have the city be crippled because of that.”

Some of the companies that received the most generous compensation have made large political donations to the mayor as well as to a now-defunct political action committee created on her behalf.

Among them was Fort Myer Construction, which was paid more than $5 million for providing dump trucks and other services. Bowser’s administration has been battling accusations that it unsuccessfully tried to steer contracts for stadium work to Fort Myer.

The company was paid $265 an hour for each of its dump trucks – $100 more than city guidelines allowed for such work in the past, and as much as $115 more an hour than the city paid to some other major contractors for the same equipment.

A company official reached by The Post on Wednesday declined to comment. According to company literature, Fort Myer conducts snowplowing operations on the Capital Beltway and Dulles Toll Road in Virginia and has a large staff of round-the-clock mechanics, refueling trucks and other support equipment that could have contributed to the higher cost.

The audit also found that D.C. hired Capitol Paving – another contractor – at two different rates for identical services. The hourly rate paid to Capitol Paving for dump trucks retained during the storm was double the rate that the city had agreed to pay earlier in the year to have trucks on retainer for the job. Calls to Capitol Paving were not immediately returned Wednesday. The owners of Capitol Paving and Fort Myer Construction have family ties.

The costly scramble resulted in part from the city’s having a combined 143 city-owned and contractor plows at the onset of the storm, just over half the number required under the city’s snow plan.

The city responded by contracting with numerous private businesses to provide a total of 403 pieces of additional equipment, including 40 heavy snowplows, 48 loaders and 181 dump trucks.

Within two days, and as rising temperatures began to melt the snow, D.C. had more equipment than it could use, with scores of trucks idling along 16th Street NW north of the White House at one point as crews awaited orders.

The total cost was almost $41 million, according to the audit.

By comparison, in six of the nine years leading up to last winter, D.C. spent $6.2 million to $6.3 million, which was sufficient to handle up to 25 inches of snow for the entire season, the auditor wrote.

In 2010, when the city faced a series of storms that some called “Snowmaggedon,” the city spent $25 million to remove more than 56 inches of snow. With other storms last year, the city spent a total of $48 million for the season.

Cheh said in a statement that she was encouraged that Bowser’s administration had begun taking steps to regularize its procurement practices.

“I believe the Mayor handled 1/8the storm 3/8 effectively and I’m interested in further exploring how we can best control costs, eliminate overpayments, and implement better negotiation practices with our contractors,” she said.

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