I-Team 10: What do you get for $15-million in stimulus money?

Posted at: 02/19/2013 6:17 AM
Updated at: 02/19/2013 7:31 PM
By: Brett Davidsen

An I-Team 10 investigation into a stalled stimulus project costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The half-completed project sits on the Canandaigua VA Medical Center campus.
It's an energy efficient steam plant designed to cut heat costs at the VA. But construction on the project is at a standstill and every day it sits idle, it continues to cost you thousands of dollars.

When I-Team 10 started investigating this project three months ago, we quickly discovered there weren't a lot of people involved in it that were too keen about talking to us about the delays. And  we can understand why. A $15 million  project that you paid for sits wrapped in a tarp while the VA and the contractor squabble over the design plans.

$15 million, that's what you, the taxpayer, forked over for this. It's a biomass steam generation system being built at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center.  When it's done, it'll use wood chips and bark salvaged from local lumber yards and logging operations to provide heat and power to the 150 acre VA campus.

Rod Gennocro, of Canandaigua, said, "I think that's excellent. Anything you can do to save money in this day and age."

But when the VA project will be done is anyone's guess.

News10NBC's Brett Davidsen said, “What if I told you this project has stalled and is sitting there idleright now half built and the work has stopped?”
Jean Melroy, of Canandaigua, said, "What are the reasons for that? What are the reasons for that. I mean, who started it and didn't finish it?"

That's what we wanted to know and what I discovered is that the VA and the contractor are locked in a bitter dispute which has brought work here to a standstill for more than a year.

Congressman Chris Collins said, "I can't imagine what their excuse might be, but we're going to dig to the bottom of it."

So we brought the stalled stimulus project to the attention of newly-elected Congressman Chris Collins.
Davidsen said, “As congressman, this is your district, what can be done to sort of break this log jam?”
Collins said, "Well, about a week ago, we did write a letter to the VA asking them for an update because the delays, like a lot of government bureaucracy, it's something we should not find and don't find acceptable."

Davidsen said, “What do you say to constituents when they see these types of things?”

Collins said, “Well, I feel their pain."

Beyond the delays, there's the issue of lost savings. This system was supposed to be up and running this heating season and is expected to reduce heating costs here on the campus by roughly a million dollars a year. That's about $3,000 lost for every day it sits idle.

For the past three months, I-Team 10 has been trying to get to the bottom of the dispute. We reached out to the contractor, Whiting-Turner, several times but ran into a dead end.  But not giving up there, we stopped by their construction trailer hoping for some face to face answers.

After digging deeper, we uncovered these legal documents, filed with a little-known government dispute settlement board called the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals. They are complaints brought by the contractor against the VA, citing "breach of contract." They accuse the VA of "mismanagement”, acting in "bad faith" and "overt hostility" toward them. The papers say the VA has ordered changes to the job but rejected the contractor's requests for increased costs.

The contractor cites as an example the steel framing for the facility. It had already gone up, but according to the documents, the VA then determined the coating on the steel wasn't in compliance. The contractor tore it all down, had the primer sand-blasted off and a new epoxy primer applied. Then, when it was ready to be put back up, the contractor claims the VA halted the work again, by ordering a change to the exterior veneer.

Collins said, "It's a question to the VA administrators, we want an explanation. We're not going to just sit back and let these delays continue."
But the VA paints a much different picture. Their response came in the form of these papers. They accuse Whiting-Turner of bait and switch, changing the plans and using inferior materials that were never approved in the contract. It also had the project executive removed., citing "his objectionable attitude towards government personnel."

The veterans administration declined our requests for an on camera interview, but in a statement to iI-Team 10, VA manager Steve Bolewski said "the government is prosecuting the contract in accordance with the contract terms and requirements. We will hold the contractor to the contract terms and conditions, and that is what we feel is the basis for the delay."

In the meantime, about the only visible change in recent months at the construction site is this giant tarp that is now draped over the generator to protect it from the elements. Taxpayers with have this advice to the two sides, work it out.

Jean Melroy, Canandaigua, said, "And as it sits there idle, it's not serving any purpose and money's just going out the window."

I-Team 10 checked with Congressman Collin's Office Tuesday. They say the VA has still not responded to their letter.  Ultimately, it may be up to the Appeals Board to mediate the dispute. I-Team 10 will continue to stay on top of this project and keep you updated.

Tuesday on News10NBC at 11, I-Team 10 will share our findings with one of the most powerful senators in the U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer. You'll hear what he's planning to do to get the project back on track.

If you have a story you want I-Team 10 to investigate, call the tip line at 585-546-0772 or e-mail us at iteam@whec.com.