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Messenger: Delays in road projects threaten federal funds in St. Louis County

Messenger: Delays in road projects threaten federal funds in St. Louis County

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St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger listens to public comment on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, during a county council meeting in Clayton. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

In December, Clayton lawyer Dudley McCarter had a simple request for the St. Louis County Council.

McCarter’s client, Gershenson Construction Co., had been awarded a bid last year to do some roadwork on South Broadway near Jefferson Barracks Park. The County Council had approved the nearly $500,000 project in May. The company had signed and returned the contract and prepared for the work. It bought equipment. It purchased the required insurance bond.

Then it waited. And waited. And waited.

McCarter told the council he was there out of a “sense of bewilderment.”

What’s the delay, he wanted to know?

He never got an answer.

A few weeks after he addressed the council, Gershenson’s contract and bid bond were returned to the company “without explanation,” McCarter says. After the seven-month delay, the project was canceled.

When it comes to delays in road and bridge projects in St. Louis County, Gershenson is not alone.

Last month, the Missouri Department of Transportation warned the county that unexplained delays in seven road projects were threatening the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding connected to the work. It was the second time in a calendar year that MoDOT had threatened the withholding of federal money over unexplained delays.

“In April 2016, your agency was similarly warned about what appears to be unnecessary delays in your bidding and award process,” wrote Randall Glaser, a MoDOT design engineer. The Post-Dispatch obtained the letter in an open records request. “Continued evidence of unnecessary delays will result in MoDOT withholding funding authorization for currently programmed federal-aid projects and could result in your agency being ineligible to compete for future … funding.”

All seven of the road and bridge projects were given state approval to advertise for bids in either August or September last year. They had a deadline of Feb. 28, 2017, to award construction contracts.

The letter got the quick attention of county officials.

By Feb. 8, a county planning employee was updating Glaser by email about the projects. By Feb. 22, four of the contracts had been executed and signed by County Executive Steve Stenger, and the other three were moving forward, according to county email records.

Stenger says he’s confident the county won’t lose federal funding on the projects.

“We’ve never had an issue where we’ve lost federal funding on a project,” he says. “I don’t anticipate any loss on these projects either.”

So what happened?

It depends on the project.

For the Gershenson project, that one is on him, Stenger says. Just because the County Council approves a project doesn’t mean it’s going to get done, Stenger says. “What the council does is give me authority to sign the contract.”

From May to December, that contract remained unsigned. Stenger says the county was dealing with budget problems, and ultimately decided not to go forward with the Gershenson contract. “It was a budget decision.”

Nobody from his office told the County Council, nor the contractor, why the job was canceled.

But the way Stenger tells it now, the county budget is tight.

“We are facing serious budget constraints,” Stenger says. “These are extremely difficult financial times for county governments.”

Stenger says other contracts could be in jeopardy in 2017. But the warning has a caveat.

The Gershenson contract was the only one canceled in 2016. And that happened only after McCarter publicly complained about it.

Budget issues have nothing to do with the slowdown on the federal projects, Stenger says.

He blames a variety of logistical issues. But a common thread connects the federal projects with the Gershenson contract.

None of the companies awarded bids for the delayed — or canceled — projects has given money to Stenger during the time the projects were being considered, some of them ever. Coincidence? Perhaps.

It is the opposite side of the coin of what I have written about previously, where public action is often preceded or followed closely by donations to Stenger’s campaign account. The most prominent example is Stenger granting a no-bid lease worth millions of dollars to his top donors, Robert and David Glarner.

“There is nothing being held up intentionally,” Stenger says of the road projects.

Stenger, who ran on a campaign accusing previous County Executive Charlie Dooley of taking action to benefit donors, denies donations or the lack of them are affecting his decisions. All the contracts mentioned in the letter from MoDOT are moving forward, he says, and several of the contractors have received other county contracts previously.

Indeed, that is true. But the devil may be in the details.

Consider J.M. Marschuetz Construction Co. Last year, Marschuetz won a bid for a nearly $8 million contract that included a bridge replacement. On May 4, Marschuetz donated $2,250 to Stenger’s campaign. One week later, Stenger recommended approval of the contract.

This time there was no donation, and the project is delayed.

Maybe it’s nothing. Stenger says it’s “impossible” to make a connection between the lack of donations and slowdown of the road contracts.

If past is prologue, an upstart political opponent might see it differently.

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