Nuisance Abatement Billing Debacle

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As the Ferguson Observer recently reported, our nuisance abatement contractor, Jenkins and Sons, incorrectly charged for mowing at a property owned by councilor Mike Palmer. Upon reviewing the invoices submitted to the city over the past two months, the Observer has found an even greater problem: Jenkins is billing far higher than the top rate included in their bid, sometimes as much as $200 an hour. And the city has paid his bills.

In an analysis of the Jenkins invoices, charges exceeded the allowed amount on 40 of the 59 invoices. We tallied the invoices in a spreadsheet, and determined that in a total billed amount of $20,416, the amount which exceeded the maximum rate in his bid was nearly $9,000.

The process by which a contractor receives payment is this: First, an invoice is sent to the city’s finance department. A clerk determines which department’s budget will be applied to the invoice, and sends it to that department head for approval. In this case, the invoice would be approved by Don Boyce, director of public works. After approval by the department head, the invoice is returned to the finance department. Upon verification by the finance department that proper approval was obtained, a payment is sent to the vendor. The finance department is responsible for ensuring that the payment amount and address is correct, and that proper authorization is received. The department head who authorizes the payment is responsible for ensuring that the payment is from a legitimate vendor, for a product or service which was actually received by the city, and in accordance with any contractual terms.

After reviewing the invoices, city manager Eric Osterberg terminated the agreement with Jenkins. But more work remains: First, the city must recover the inappropriately billed amounts. We can deduct the proper amount for any unbilled service from that, but a large debt will almost certainly remain. We have two prospective vendors who will be considered at a special council meeting tomorrow, so that the work can continue. And then there remains the matter of accountability. First, there must be accountability for whomever signed off on dozens of invoices that should not have been paid. But there also must be accountability for the council members who forced the city to use Jenkins as their sole vendor. By blocking Palmer, who was the lowest bidder, they have left the city in a difficult spot.

On a side note, before the mayor and her friends on council blocked Palmer from contracting with the city, he also provided emergency board-up services. We obtained an invoice of a recent board-up at 23 Paul, which was required after the home was damaged by a fire. The service was provided by 1-800-BoardUp, which charged the city a total of $683 to cover 4 windows – $235 for a service call, and $448 for plywood. Palmer, according to an interview with the Observer, charges $250 for the first 3 windows, and $70 for each additional, which would have been $320 for this job. The decision to exclude Palmer will cost the city thousands of dollars a year in board-up fees.