By Maggie Lee
A city borrowing program that promised Atlanta voters $250 million in improvements to roads, sidewalks, bridges and city buildings is delivering, delays and budget-busting fire station repairs, according to a new report by city auditors.
The estimated cost of works on 25 stations citywide is about $4.4 million more than what was budgeted for them, for several reasons, the report on Renew Atlanta says.
That’s more than 50 percent higher than the $8.7 million allocated for the works in 2015.
As a result, some fire station projects will need to be completed with funding from other sources than the Renew Atlanta Infrastructure Bond, auditors concluded. They suggested the Office of Enterprise Assets Management, which manages the city’s real estate.
What’s often simply called “Renew Atlanta” is a bond program approved by city voters in 2015. Voters authorized the city to borrow $250 million to start clearing a long backlog of public works.
The city assessed fire stations in 2015, and based on that, 25 fire stations were lined up for various upgrades. For most, the minimum was new lockers and exhaust systems that vent fumes from gear and trucks to the outside. Many were also slated for kitchen and bathroom upgrades and ADA modification. Some repairs are done and some are not yet done.
The bond plan did not contain a bucket of funds labeled “fire station renovations,” exactly. Instead, fire stations were funded from a bucket of “local” funds: money divided up by council district.
Those “local” funds — $8.7 million — were insufficient to cover all the fire station needs that had been identified in 2015. The 2015 cost was thought to be some $10.3 million; adding in more renovation needs listed since then, an updated total cost is $13.1 million.
Auditors found a few things eating into a budget that started out too small.
One was design costs. Ideally, design shouldn’t cost more than 15 percent of estimated construction costs. However, of nine stations with an architect’s construction estimate, eight busted that guideline. On one station, design cost 48 percent of estimated construction costs.
“Controls intended to track and limit design costs were not functioning,” the report says.
For example, if a design task order only covers a bathroom, but the construction task order it goes with covers a bathroom and and a kitchen, auditors said Renew should benchmark the bathroom design task costs only against the bathroom construction costs, not the overall cost of construction.
Another thing driving up costs was the need to rework designs due to new circumstances. For example, in 2017, the fire department told the city they wanted gender-neutral bathrooms. So, that required new designs on several stations.
Works have been delayed, auditors said, due in part to difficulty in finding contractors for these relatively small jobs.
The office of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms sent the audit upon request on Tuesday, but did not have a response to it by Wednesday afternoon. This story will be updated with any comment that arrives.
In a visit to fire stations in April 2018, auditors found things like a water-filled pothole out front, part of an indoor wall rotted away, a boarded-up window and a gear room without lockers, among other things.
That’s about three years to the month after Atlanta voters approved the Renew Atlanta bond program.
Auditors did find that controls over payments are functioning — that is, making sure payments to architects and engineers are authorized and supported.
Renew Atlanta operations are regularly reviewed by auditors because the legislation that set up the program demands it.
In a covering letter to the mayor and council, auditors said they chose to review fire stations because “fire stations provide a public safety service throughout the city and because of stakeholder concerns.”
A November review of a sample of road repaving projects found documentation of baseline budgets lacking on many of them, making it harder to control costs and schedules. Zooming in on a sample of streets, auditors found several that had been repaved with no money set aside for them in the city’s computers.
In July 2016, auditors found that Renew contracting didn’t comply with best practices or fully protect the city.
In both cases, as well as the fire station audit, Renew staff mostly agreed with auditors findings and promised changes.