Construction project way over budget thanks to ‘gross negligence’ by Miami-Dade

Cost overruns at a county center have Mayor Carlos Gimenez citing “gross negligence” by his administration for a mistake that could cost taxpayers $4 million.

The new parking garage and courtroom renovations at the Joseph Caleb Center in Liberty City are running about 13 percent above budget. And that could get worse. A scathing memo from Gimenez states the project has “at least” a $3.5 million shortfall, thanks to his purchasing department not tracking a mounting string of overruns.

“The magnitude of this shortfall demonstrates the gross negligence and mismanagement of this project by certain individuals within the Internal Services Department,” he wrote. “The Internal Services Director is undertaking at least 7 different disciplinary actions as a result of this mismanagement, up to and including termination.”

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Inside the Caleb Center, which is under construction in Miami on Tuesday, August 29, 2017.

Roberto Koltun

Tara Smith, the director at Internal Services, previously ran the construction division that is managing the Caleb project. Gimenez promoted her to head the department in 2015. In an Aug. 25 memo to the mayor, she said that in her previous post, she saw the construction division lacked training on certain budget procedures designed to avoid overruns. “I realized at the time that our project managers needed additional training and understanding of their project budgets,” she wrote.

Smith, who earned $181,000 last year, said she implemented the needed training and protocols but that the Caleb supervisor did not follow procedures. “This is a major failure on the part of my department,” she wrote.

Scheduled to finish in late 2018, the Caleb project involves a new parking garage and renovation of courtrooms and other government facilities inside the county-owned complex on the 5400 block of Northwest 22nd Avenue.

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A view of the Caleb Center under construction in northwest Miami on Tuesday, August 29, 2017.

Roberto Koltun

It’s being run as a patchwork of construction projects, with one contractor, ABC Construction, finishing up the parking garage while another, MCM, gets started on the ground-floor atrium. Smith said the contractors were not at fault, but that the blame rests with her department not tracking a dwindling amount of money left to spend on a project currently budgeted at $28 million.

The unusually harsh language in the mayor’s memo describing his own administration comes as Miami International Airport awaits the lifting of a procurement freeze there after vendors pressed for relief from some of the county-run facility’s contracting decisions. And the Caleb situation arrives ahead of the County Commission considering a 2018 budget with flat property-tax rates and a string of austerity measures, including cuts to the county’s transit system.

In an interview, Smith largely blamed the incident on a project manager she declined to name. She said the manager did not adhere to a cumbersome process of reconciling expenses with the county’s “antiquated” financial systems that aren’t able to present a project’s budget particulars on a single screen.

“Our legacy systems aren’t talking to each other,” Smith said.

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Roberto Koltun

Internal Services is the county’s procurement and contracting arm for projects that aren’t managed by individual agencies, like MIA or PortMiami. It manages about $310 million worth of construction projects a year, meaning the Caleb project represents about 10 percent of the total. “It’s one of our bigger projects,” she said.

Miami-Dade is funding the Caleb construction through the county’s special property tax dedicated to debt, and the project is a tiny component of a $2.9 billion borrowing plan approved in 2004 as part of the county’s Building Better Communities bond program. Smith said the overruns will be absorbed by cuts elsewhere in her department’s construction budget. In his memo, Gimenez said savings also could come from the Caleb project itself.

Smith said Internal Services already has a procedure to warn the department when the budget-control process isn’t being followed, but that those warnings weren’t acted on for Caleb. “These alerts were supposedly received, but ignored,” she said. “As a leader, and the person responsible for this department, I have to depend on the people in my department to do their job.”