- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser vastly overpaid for snow removal services last year, spending tens of millions of dollars on the city’s credit card, but made no effort to negotiate better rates as last January’s winter storm dumped nearly two feet of snow on the District, according to a new audit.

All told, the District spent about $41 million on snow removal last year, and nearly $100,000 of that was in credit card surcharges for a J.P. Morgan charge account that was shut off temporarily.

Department of Public Works “officials indicated that they did not seek to negotiate costs at all, and merely engaged independent contractors at the price they offered,” according to a report by D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson that was requested by D.C. Council member Mary Cheh.

That led to the District paying a wide range of costs for identical services provided by different contractors. Most of those contracts were in excess of the standard rates the city generally agrees to pay in retainer contracts and well above the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s schedule of rates for emergency services, according to the audit.

“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 says.

It’s unclear whether the federal government, which normally reimburses the city for some snow removal, will pay for services that exceed the FEMA schedule of rates, and that could leave the District on the hook for those expenses.

And beyond overpaying for the services, the audit shows that Miss Bowser handed out contracts to some of her biggest donors, including Fort Myer Construction, which was paid more than $5 million for its snow removal efforts.

Fort Myer billed the city $265 per hour for dump trucks, and the audit shows that District’s general purchase agreement retainer rate for that kind of service is between $100 and $165 per hour.

That information comes as Miss Bowser is embroiled in accusations that she retaliated against Department of General Services officials who failed to hand over two stadium construction contracts to Fort Myer. Miss Bowser and City Administrator Rashad Young vehemently have denied the allegations.

Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said the report shows the city needs a better plan to control costs, even when extraordinary measures need to be taken.

“[T]his report demonstrates that there is a better balance the District can strike between rapid storm response and unnecessary cost overruns,” said Ms. Cheh, who chairs the Trnasportation Committee. “It is true that contracting and other rules are different when the Mayor has declared a state of emergency, such as a major winter storm, but we cannot forsake the careful use of our funds and possible savings in the process.”

Public Works Director Christopher Shorter and George Schutter, director of the Office of Contracting and Procurement, responded jointly to Ms. Patterson’s criticisms in the report, saying the snowstorm that hit the city from Jan. 22-24 was “extraordinary” and that extra measures needed to be taken to combat the heavy snowfall.

“The duration of the storm, the amount of snow, and the heavy, wet nature of the snow that fell, combined to place unforeseen demands upon the District’s personnel and resources,” Mr. Shorter and Mr. Schutter wrote. “These operations required more and different equipment, more and more skilled personnel, working more hours, often at overtime and weekend billing rates, than previous storms.”

The Bowser administration shot back at Ms. Patterson for chiding the mayor for overpaying for equipment rates, saying the audit didn’t take in all pricing factors.

“The audit findings fail to consider the reasons for the variances, such as the size of the equipment provided and other price-related factors such as travel expenses,” Mr. Shorter and Mr. Schutter wrote.

They also said costs for nonlocal vendors to travel to assist in the snow removal effort were not priced separately, but were built into the proposed rates.

“In a system of supply and demand, obviously the availability of the equipment also affects price. In sum, factors such as equipment size, availability, and travel time to the District should have been considered in order to make statements about the prices the District paid,” the administration said in its response.

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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