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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, October 08, 2012

NorCo Council Low-Balled on Archives Building

Since his election as Northampton County Executive in 2006, John Stoffa has wanted an archives building for the county's numerous records. It had a state-of-the-art facility, the envy of numerous other counties who periodically toured it. But it was torn down under former Executive Glenn Reibman to make way for a jail expansion. In April, Council waved its magic wand and granted Stoffa's wish, authorizing his purchase of a Forks Township building at 999 Conroy Place. But along the way, it appears that someone in his administration may have deceived Council, intentionally or unintentionally, concerning its actual cost. Let me tell you the story.

This purchase was long overdue. The County was paying $120,000 every year to store these records, in a floodplain, in Allentown. There was also a 48-hour delay for anyone who needed to view them. Originally, Stoffa decided to buy the Milides building, across the street from the courthouse, only to learn later that the parking was inadequate. After reviewing over thirty other sites, Stoffa finally decided on 999 Conroy Place with its 24 parking places, handicapped accessibility and close proximity to police and fire departments.

But nothing in life or government is free. Council had to sign off on a $750,000 purchase price from owner Edwin Stipe, who only paid $430,000 to buy the building in 2000. Stoffa warned Council that there would be substantial associated costs, too, including a whopping $600,000 for high-tech shelving.

It would also cost the County $90,000 to permanently retrieve the records from the Allentown facility.

Finally, there would be retrofit costs. This building would have to be modified with all kinds of humidity controls and specialized fire suppression to protect records, some of them nearly 300 years old, from the ravages of time.

Council member Ken Kraft, who eventually voted to make the purchase, wanted to know how much it would cost to retrofit the building. At the April Council meeting, he asked for a "firm" number. At this time , Director of Court Services Archie D'Isidore had two widely divergent engineering cost estimates in his pocket. One was for $700,000, and the other was for a little over half that amount, $356,000.

Instead of stating he really had no "firm" number, D'Isidore low-balled Council, just disclosing the $356,000 figure. "And that will pretty much include everything, including the HVAC, lighting, the whole nine yards," he assured Kraft and the rest of Council.

When bids for the retrofit came, the lowest one was $511,000, which is $155,000 more than Archie D'Isidore had led Council to believe.

Below are excerpts of some of the tense exchanges at Thursday night's Council meeting.

John Stoffa: "The initial estimate [of retrofit costs] was not accurate in terms of what it's going to take to get the building done, so up to $200,000 more is needed to complete that work."

Steve DeSalva, Director of Public Works: "There was oversight with the engineer. They missed some items."

"When the bids came in, we saw a $165,000 that was above the cost that was estimated."

"You could say that most of the costs were HVAC, but they were across the board proportionately."

"We know we got a good bid. We just had a bad engineer's estimate."

Herman Van Fleet, Project Architect, with thirty years experience: "You're getting good value for what you ended up with."

Ken Kraft: "Thirty years in the business and you didn't know an archives building needed special humidity control and special HVAC units and special fire suppression because it's all paper and it's not your typical office building?"

"Where did we miss this?"

Van Fleet then acknowledges that there was an original estimate of $700,000, which is higher than the $511,000. But amazingly, he was asked to lower his own estimate.

"We were asked to move forward with a very low ball estimate at $350,000."

Ken Kraft. "Who asked to go forward with a low ball estimate?"

Van Fleet: "We presented both."

Ken Kraft: "No. Who asked you to go forward with a low ball estimate because that estimate came to us, for us to approve this building when we decided to buy it, so who told you to do that?"

Van Fleet: "Both were presented and the lower one was decided to move forward."

Ken Kraft: "Presented to whom?"

Van Fleet: "We gave it back to, I didn't personally do it myself, but it was given back to the County."

Ken Kraft: "You know, we're responsible for spending people's money and to get the most for the money that we spend. You, being a qualified architect, I mean someone here should be responsible for it. Not us, for $200,000. Maybe the architect who didn't design. ... It's just an easy way to pass it off to somebody else. I'm a painter. I did an archives building for Lehigh University. I knew there were special suppression systems. I knew there was special HVAC. I'm just a painter, OK? You're an architect. 30 years."

Lamont McClure: "You originally submitted a bid that was in the neighborhood of $700,000?"

Van Fleet: "It was a estimate. Very preliminary."

McClure: "Which is ultimately what it ended up being after you went in there and started tearing things up, correct? About $700,000 now?"

Van Fleet: "No, it's - I believe the final bids are $511,000."

McClure:  "Right, but we need more money? Correct? Isn't that what we're talking about? What we're trying to get at here is how did this second bid come about? ... Did you realize that was never going to cover the cost of bidding out the archives building?"

Blogger's Note: There was no second bid. McClure is confused. An engineer presented the County with two cost estimates, and the lower one was presented to Council before any bids were sought. 

Van Fleet: "The second lower bid was very preliminary in nature and we through the design phase discovered that the actual cost was going to be more. We had a signed contract given to us in June. We requested in our bid to have four months of design period so we could get more cost estimates and so forth. We had one month. We actually staffed up and did our very best to get this thing done in one month. And we did. It went out to bids August 1."

DeSalva: "I think that a mistake was made. The estimate was wrong".

McClure: "So they made the mistake? The architect made the mistake? ... We're talking about the veracity of bids that are presented to us tied to projects that we approve. That's what I think Mr. Kraft was getting at, and that's what has me interested. The fact of the matter is they came in with a higher bid and someone asked them to whittle that down. Who asked them to whittle it down?"

Blogger's Note: McClure still seems to be confusing the low-ball estimate with the bids that were later received.

DeSalva: "I guess we wanted to get the lowest cost but still get what we needed."

McClure: "Who's we?"

DeSalva: "I would have said that. I would have said, 'Do what you gotta' do.' ... I think it would be a general theme. You don't want to pay for anything more than you need."

Kraft: "That's like saying you want to go to the lowest bidder for a heart transplant. I don't understand."

Bob Werner: "In November 2011 [when original cost estimate was prepared], you came up with a figure that was based on a guess, yes?"

Van Fleet: "Based on a guess."

Werner: "This is what has happened in the past, and I don't believe it should happen again. I think we have to be more diligent. Our due diligence here is negligible."

Scott Parsons knew what was going on. "Every time you put something out to bid, your bid is going to come in a lot higher. ... Very seldom do you see a bid come in lower than your estimate. You're low-balling the estimate to get us to do it. That's the mistake. Don't low-ball estimates. The project was probably going to be approved regardless of the amount."

John Stoffa: "It's not complicated. Borton Lawson [the engineer] made a mistake. They made a bad mistake."

Stoffa told Council that Barton Lawson is working gratis until the end of the project. He also got a little snippy with Ken Kraft when Kraft complained about payment to the engineer.

"I answered your question," interrupted Stoffa. "They will not get one cent more until this project is complete."

One question that was never answered, despite repeated requests, is the identity of the County official who wanted that low ball estimate. Whether it was just Archie D'Isidore or some collective is at this point unknown.

Borton Lawson may have made a "bad mistake," but so did Director of Court Services Archie D'Isidore. He clearly misled Council with a low-ball. That's deplorable from an administration whose legacy has been  its integrity.

D'Isidore, incidentally, is one of the County officials who recommended that Stoffa appoint an inexperienced Register of Wills over a 13-year veteran who was backed by the courts. He also recently conducted a two-year investigation into employees' email exchanges, and got two of them fired for gossiping via email and using naughty language. He even considered recommending himself for the Recorder of Deeds slot, so he'd be safe when Stoffa leaves office.

Who is looking at him?

Council, by a 8-1 vote with only Bruce Gilbert opposed, wants the Controller to find out what the hell is going on.

I think I know. There's a growing weakness in the Stoffa administration. He is not seeking re-election. He's lost strong cabinet members like John Conklin and Vic Mazziotti, with more on their way out and others looking. The attention to detail that existed even a year ago is no longer there.  I'd like to think that Stoffa's originals would have corrected D'Isidore when he mis-spoke in April.

Incidentally, only $1,053,000 was set aside for the archives building in the 2012 budget. I am unable to see any provision for the $600,000 shelving cost in either the 2012 or 2013 budget.. I might be wrong, bt the Exec never conducted a news conference concerning his looming 2013 Budget.


Anonymous said...

Why does the Gracedale blog claim $285,000 more is needed, and you put the figure at $155,000?

Anonymous said...

The building was not needed. The archives lease was paid for with fees, not county taxes. Now Stoffa has again put the county in a financial hole due to his incompetence. As well as a desire to have a building named after himself.

Weak, very weak.

Anonymous said...

i wouldn't say stoffa is necessarily incompetent, but i question why we're building a 20th century archives building, instead on investing in the 21st century technology that would obviate the need for said building.

Anonymous said...

and where the hell is desalva on all this?

Anonymous said...

Fumbles soffa and his band off incompetents strike again..

Narco residents take it in the shorts again.

Anonymous said...

I saw Galiotto in attendance for this meeting. This probably wouldn't have happened if he were sitting on council.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I could not imagine this would have happened in Lehigh County. Whether it was Cunningham or Hansell, this would not be allowed. It smacks of bush-league management and to try and blame this on somebody OTHER than the executive is simply a fools-game. Stoffa's weak-management skills are becoming more evident with each month.

Anonymous said...

If Wayne Grube were alive, he'd yawn at the deceitful, low estimate, and declare the cost overrun, "nice."

He may be gone, but his legacy of indifference to stewardship of taxpayer dollars is alive and well.

What park shall we name for Stoffa?

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Why does the Gracedale blog claim $285,000 more is needed, and you put the figure at $155,000?"

I have no idea about most of the wacky observations made by those kooks.

Bernie O'Hare said...

". The archives lease was paid for with fees, not county taxes"

The archives lease was paid for by the records improvement fund, which is generated by a fee that is assessed when instruments are recorded. There was $860,000 in that fund, which generates over $100,000 per year. There is no need to raise taxes.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"i wouldn't say stoffa is necessarily incompetent, but i question why we're building a 20th century archives building, instead on investing in the 21st century technology that would obviate the need for said building."

You can question all you want, but it is the state that mandates that the county maintain records. Also, our deeds system is based on the recording of records. How those records are stored is governed by state law.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"and where the hell is desalva on all this?"

Steve DeSalva is involved in so many projects on so many buildings that i wonder when he sleeps. He was in front of Council on Thursday night.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"I saw Galiotto in attendance for this meeting. This probably wouldn't have happened if he were sitting on council:

He as there to see what was going on with Nazareth Ambulance. He is an architect and would be Council's first. It is very clear to be that some Council members, like McClure, were very confused. I believe Randy could provide a perspective that currently lack, especially on capital projects.

Bernie O'Hare said...

7:23, Don't you have anything substantive to say?

Bernie O'Hare said...

"It smacks of bush-league management and to try and blame this on somebody OTHER than the executive is simply a fools-game."

He is ultimately responsible, to be sure. Council was clearly misled, and that is on him. But I would argue that the person who actually misled Council - D'Isidore - is most responsible. Now since he believes in firing people for naughty emails, what is his punishment for deceiving Council?

Anonymous said...

I was wondering, after reading the top three stories on your blog today, whether you and Mr. Stoffa are estranged or whether the divorce has gone through already, lol....Interesting..Your stories are, dare I say, somewhat unbiased.
It's like Fox noise saying something positive about the latest jobs report ( they haven't yet) I'm unamazed..

Bernie O'Hare said...

Up until now, I have found little reason to criticize Stoffa. Two years ago, I did criticize his wacky "budget of choices." I have disagreed with him on other items as well. But I always felt he was motivated by what is in the best interests of the County.

Now I think he is just treading water.

I understand he will only be in office for another two years, and I know he is tired. But he signed on for four more years, not two. If he loses good cabinet members, he must replace them with good cabinet members or pick up the slack himself. He is actually working less, doing less, at a time when more is needed.

He is relying on people with questionable skills for important decisions, from appointing a new register of wills, to firing two low-paid employees over bullshit, to misleading Council, to a budget that is completely irresponsible.

I have to criticize these poor decisions.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Your stories are, dare I say, somewhat unbiased."

What you mean to say is you agree with me. Every writer is biased, and any claim to the contrary is bullshit that will necessarily fail.

My bias is and always has been the best interests of the County. I see what goes on there. I may not always be right, but will call things as I see them. I have felt that Stoffa, for the mist part, has been an excellent Exec who was motivated by the best interests of the County.

But his recent decisions are completely contrary to the best interests of the county. I have to be true to myself and criticize them. I still admire Stoffa, whom I consider a man of integrity. Unlike many of his anonymous critics, he is a good-hearted man, and it tears me apart to be critical.

Anonymous said...

From day one he has hired incompetent hacks promoted by his supporters and old pals. The county has been run by idiots for years.

Speaking of idiots, is one of the top ones, Marcus gone yet? He was always one of the worse political payoffs.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I am willing to look at Stoffa's cabinet honestly, unfettered by the hatred that you possess. Ross Marcus has been an excellent Director of Human Services and is one of Stoffa's best appointment. People like John Conklin and Vic Mazziotti were excellent, too. You won't find a harder worker than Steve DeSalva, although the number of things he has to do is overwhelming. Stoffa has mostly made good calls.

Anonymous said...

John Stoffa has alternately suggested ribs-and-dick budget cutting, and floating bonds for expensive parking decks. He's been all over the place. He's a lifetime government employee who really has no grasp of the economic realities of the non governmental world. He was recently amazed at the impact of some international turmoil on financial markets affecting NorCo's finances. Whodathunk? When you've lived forever in a world where money grows on trees, you can't be expected to know what the hell your talking about in matters of money. John's a very nice and honorable man. He's also been a very bad choice to operate the meat grinder of county finances. He's been better than Reibman. But that's not saying anything good.

Anonymous said...

it really is hard to say anything substantive about fumbles.

I'll take that back...

He is a lousy joke of a manager

Bernie O'Hare said...

I'll agree that you don't offer much in the way of substance.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with 1:42 also..I also agree that John is a good hearted man if you don't get on his bad side...However, if they drain the reserves, the County will have problems for years to come. The state and Feds are cutting back and the County won't be able to pick up the tab, so many things, especially in Human Services will be cut back or privitized..That why building a new Human Service building right now is just nuts..

Bernie O'Hare said...

I tend to agree that it is an idea that needs to be put on hold, unless there is some pressing reason to relocate. I think the Governor Wolf Bldg is falling apart.

Anonymous said...

Van Fleet was fleet on presenting misinformation. Who's the dude in the picture, Rick James?

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised there hasn't been much criticism about two of the world's hilariously worst architects and engineers.

Anonymous said...

Bernie are u serious when you say Marcus was a good appointment? Do you know the job he has done in HS? Why don't you ask workers and Adminiatrators and ask them about this guy? There is no way he is good, or A plus as Stoffa states. There have been 4 program cut or privatized in last 2 years in Human Services. An attempt to sell Gracedale. Not to mention a major fumble on a Child Advocacy Center. And if that is not bad enough, he has allowed Ilisa Sacknoff to run programs to the ground and then hand her a job without even opening the job to workers.

Anonymous said...

Notice that js is now on Bo's hit list as he has a new man crush in jc.

What a fickled bitch that boy bo

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Bernie are u serious when you say Marcus was a good appointment? Do you know the job he has done in HS?"

Aside from morons like the Fake rev and Ron Shegda, i have heard nothing but good things abut this guy, and that has been my own experience. That is why he is a finalist in luzerne County.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"s is now on Bo's hit list as he has a new man crush in jc"

Stoffa is taking some heat over (1) an irresponsible budget; (2) failure to conduct a news conference about it as he has done in the past; (3) people in his administration who deceived Council, intentionally or unintentionally; (4) the firing of two low-level employees over bullshit.

He is by no mean on my "hit list," as you call it, and I continue to hold him in high regard. I just don't agree with him about everything, and have disagreed with him in the past over some issues as well.

If he were to run now, I'd support him.

Anonymous said...

Ross Marcus is even worse than that old guy busniessman Bradt from a longtime ago. The old Bradt guy was clueless but harmless, Marcus is a nasty trainwreak. Word is becuase of the large amount of money
Bradt gave Stoffa, Marcus had ro be hired. It has been bad. The
Department is pretty much on autopiolet like the rest of the county. The thing is rotting away.

The county will be much better off when Stoffa and his hacks are gone.

Bernie O'Hare said...

The only hack we are hearing from is you. Marcus is an excellent Director of Human Services. Other than the anonymous slurs from you, the Fake Rev and Ron Shegda, I have heard nothing but good things about him. And that is all i have seen. In his years with the County, I have never seen one member of Council challenge him in any way. He has fought against state cutbacks and cares about the people he serves. You do nothing but spew your anonymous venom.

Anonymous said...

He is seen as weak and ineffectual. If County
council has not asked him hard questions, thta is why they will be out of office. Next year a few more go by the wayside, along with your pal Angle.

Anonymous said...

How about kickbacks hmmmmmm!!!

Bernie O'Hare said...

I don't understand that at all. We are talking about an engineer's estimate, not a bidder. He would have no reason to give anyone a kickback. Don't be ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Let's get realistic Bernie. SToffa stood bye and watched the "Swaption" go from 6 million to twenty seven million. From 13 million to 27 million in the last two years. He has done nothing progressive in seven years. He has managed to squander a 60 million dollar "Reibman Windfall" and made poor administrative decisions. Sure he is basically and honest guy. That is where it ends. He came from being a "Human Services Jock" to the top job and has failed tremendously. He is leaving this County in a financial mess. I am sorry I voted for him seven years ago. Just goes to prove,we all make mistakes. Obviously, you included.

Anonymous said...

Why is Stoffa getting involveld at this late date with an Archives Building. He'll never finish the project and the job will be left for the next Executive to finish? He has no clue what he is doing. All the programs he kept his hands off, are working fine. He should leave office period. Let a more qualified person get involved with an Archives. Archie is a screwball. He shouldn't be allowed to tie his own shoes.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Why is Stoffa getting involveld at this late date with an Archives Building. He'll never finish the project and the job will be left for the next Executive to finish?"

The building has been purchased and the job should be finished by the end of the year. Basically, you are full of shit.

Bernie O'Hare said...

11:59, You are just full of hatred so there is no point in responding to you. This post is about a lowball, not the swaption.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Let's get realistic Bernie. SToffa stood bye and watched the "Swaption" go from 6 million to twenty seven million."

I have discussed the numerous times. The only person you can blame for the swaption are Reibman, who proposed it, and the 2004 Council, which enacted it. They put Stoffa in the unenviable position of being forced to gamble with taxpayer money.

By the way, where the hell were you when the swaption was $6 million? $7 million? $15 million? Nowhere. The only persons who forcefully advocated that we pull the trigger were Angle and Mazziotti. And as interests rates varied they would go back and forth.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, not one newspaper covered this. Do you know why?

Bernie O'Hare said...

No. I don't tell them what to write about and they don't tell me. I am glad to have had an opportunity to complement what appears in the dailies.