Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Compliance With Federal Regulations Receive Heightened Attention

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, commonly known as the MPO, appears to be at the center of two federal reviews – one about the FedExForum garage and another about Homeland Security.

Being asked in both cases is whether regulations governing the use and oversight of federal funds were complied with.

First, FedExForum.

Last week, the city attorney released 800 pages of documents positioned as the seminal emails, letters and reports about the controversial garage project, whose misuse of federal funds has already led to a $6.5 million penalty for the City of Memphis, which accepted the $20 million garage construction grant for both Memphis and Shelby County Governments.

Missing Links

Curiously, missing from the list are letters written by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and former Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout who were actively involved in lobbying and reaching a political understanding with then-governor Don Sundquist on state funding for Memphis’ new arena.

Not included on the cd of documents is a letter written by Mayor Herenton to then-Commissioner of Transportation Bruce Saltsman in spring, 2002, describing the garage project and how it would meet federal regulations for an intermodal transfer facility.

Commissioner Saltsman, at the direction of governor, had been told to “make the project happen,” and he instructed his staff to work with representatives of city and county governments and the Public Building Authority to design the garage to meet the regulations.

That’s where the MPO was involved, although its pivotal role is only hinted at in the recently released documents.

MPO Amendment

There could be no federal funds for the FedExForum garage unless the MPO signed off on them in its role as the regional agency that sets priorities and approves the use of all federal transportation-related funds as part of its Transportation Improvement Program.

That’s why Rout, who also was chairman of the MPO in 2002, called a special meeting of the group. The only purpose was to amend the organization’s existing three-year transportation plan (developed and approved 10 ½ months before) so that $25 million – $20 million in federal funds plus $5 million in local matching funds – could be spent to “reconstruct Linden Avenue, construct and parking and an intermodal transfer facility near the intersection of Third and Linden.”

The resolution by the MPO executive board approving the project was signed by Rout on July 11, 2002. Because the $25 million in funding was coming from federal funds earmarked for projects decreasing traffic congestion, lowering auto emissions and increasing the use of mass transit, the MPO took the money from existing programs, which were moved down in priority to free up the money for the garage. The changes in priorities seem even more relevant in light of recent air quality problems in Memphis.

If Governor Sundquist had fulfilled his pledge to “do for Memphis what we (state government) did for Nashville,” there would have been no intermodal facility problem, but once he said that state government would take the money from federal funds, he set in motion a process whose goal was to make sure the arena garage was designed to meet federal regulations.

Coordination

This required careful coordination between TDOT and the MPO, and subsequently, a letter by Rout confirmed the agreement. Ironically, attached to the letter were the penalties (fine and prison) for not following the federal rules.

The index released by the city attorney prominently mention the name of PBA Executive Director David Bennett, who was hired to work on the Forum after serving as project manager for The Pickering Firm during construction of The Pyramid and later as Shelby County engineer.

Mr. Bennett did not suffer fools lightly and was notorious for stating his unvarnished professional opinion in a political environment that normally despises such candor. As the person in charge of The Pyramid construction, he was legend for keeping meticulous notes, the key factor in local governments never losing a lawsuit filed against it while winning every lawsuit they filed against contractors.

Back in December, 2002, Mr. Bennett said he was concerned the arena garage. Like every one involved in the project, he was frustrated by the state’s decision to take its $20 million for the project from federal funds with plenty of strings attached.

But more to the point, he said the garage was turning into a mess, because the staff of the PBA and local government was being asked to comply with regulations that were problematic. Most of all, the garage being designed to meet the federal regulations wasn’t the garage promised to the Memphis Grizzlies, he said, adding that it would be trouble before the project was over.

Mr. Bennett died in 2004, so he’ll never know how right he was.

Homeland Security

The other MPO-related program attracting the attention of federal officials is Homeland Security.

Put simply, the six-county District 11 Homeland Security office is in disarray. Despite press releases about cameras and exercises, the office seems to lack any real program of work, no real training programs and no real sense of purpose.

Things seemed on the right track when former Memphis Police Director James Bolden was named executive director of the office, but unlike some communities where Homeland Security reports directly to the top levels of government, here, it was placed three layers down, answering to the county government’s director of public works.

After a short time on the job, Mr. Bolden called it quits, complaining about interference from public works officials into the operations of his office, and following his resignation, the confusion amplified, as the MPO – with no authority over homeland security – began to manage the agency.

Problems

Some websites now even list the telephone number of the MPO staff as the contact for homeland security rather than the District 11 office. Homeland Security staff has been told not to talk to state and federal officials or the media, but it appears that soon, federal authorities will be talking to them as a result of concerns about the office.

Some questions to be answered are why MPO submitted a Homeland Security budget to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners that seems to conflict with the budget submitted to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, why current operations circumvent the local executive director of Homeland Security, if personnel costs charged to the federal government are allowable under federal regulations and if present operations comply with funding restrictions.

One thing about these federal reviews is clear. The days of laissez faire federal oversight is over. A clear message is being sent by the feds: agencies accepting and spending federal funds better get serious about conforming to the rules. Or else.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your blogs on the FedEx Forum should be titled "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum".

When the forum garage story broke, I had two reactions - 1)Somehow I knew from the beginning in 2002 that the Intermodal Transfer Facility was a local/state fraud to get federal funds to accomplish another purpose (parking for the forum); and 2) Dave Bennett will get blamed since he is the only garage gate player (maybe unwilling)who is dead. Everyone from the mayors on down knew what was going on. The only surprise is how poorly they carried out the ruse. A vacant MATA office seems pathetic.

Anonymous said...

How dare the feds tell us that this is not a non-profit, Intermodal Transfer Facility. Who's making a profit?. Certainly not the Grizzlies. They lose millions of $$ each year. Buses do pick up passengers on Linden and Beale, and surely they have used another mode of travel prior to boarding the bus! There is even a MATA office at the location.

Anonymous said...

Why is the MPO submitting a budget to the County Commission if the Homeland Security Office is under Ted Fox, the County Public Works Director? Is the MPO under Ted Fox? and is he just rearranging the organization chart in his own division? or maybe Fox had so many boxes on his chart, he's just sending one to another division?

Anonymous said...

There is so much more to the Homeland Security story than has been mentioned here. Ted Fox and Mayor A C Wharton, Jr., are at the root of the problems, though. A couple of examples...

1. The "District 11 Office of Homeland Security" is not a legal entity. It was created by the stroke of a pen somewhere between Ted Fox's office and Mayor Wharton's. The County's own finance department doesn't even recognize the office. Take a look at Ted Fox's budget; he is expending the money from the Emergency Management Agency (EMA) line. If EMA is where the money is being pulled from, why is EMA Director Claude Talford not overseeing the process?

2. The office was created to manage grants. That's it. Nothing more. Nothing less. The hiring of James Bolden was not a success story; it was yet another failure. James Bolden was a failure as a Police Director in Memphis and was equally so as "Executive Director of Homeland Security." The office does not have a homeland security mission. This is another area where EMA is the agency with responsibility.

I could go on, but I'm tired and I'm getting madder by the minute as I write. I'm interested to read comments after mine. Hahaha!

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous "Ha Ha". I agree,
there is so much more to the Homeland Security story than has been mentioned here. Martha Lott is at the root of the problems. She is the life-line among all three of the departments (MPO, Homeland Security and EMA). She lacks the necessary professional knowledge to perform what is expected of her and she certainly lacks the "people" skills one must have to run a department. How could A.C Wharton make such a grave mistake?

Anonymous said...

Slander is the revenge of a coward, and dissimulation of his defense.

By Samuel Johnson

Anonymous said...

Whoa! Every "Anonymous" out there is weighing in on this one.

Something must be rotten in Denmark.

James M. Snyder said...

Reading this I too am getting madder and madder. It may be fun to listen from someone taking potshots from the shadows but to me it shows their character or lack of one. My name is Matt Snyder and I work for Shelby County Fire Department. I was assigned to duties in Homeland Security to help straighten out the problems.
First I would like to state some facts.

One, Shelby County government is the grantee. If you have a problem with that you need to write the Feds. (By the way you will need to add your name)

Second, Shelby County Government, as so many in this nation, was not prepared for this type operation.

Third, was there mistake, we wouldn’t be reading this if their wasn’t. There have been a lot of mistakes on all parties. Even when the original grants were administered by EMA. Nobody was equipped to handle buying this much stuff for so many different agencies.

The last and most important fact. Martha Lott has a proven track record of fixing troubled grants. Mayor Wharton knew this and assigned (this means he didn’t ask, he told) her to fix this problem.
I only met Martha Lott around six months ago and have been impressed with the dedication she and a lot of others have shown in trying to make sure others get their equipment and do not loose it as they were about to. By the way. Martha and her group get nothing out of this.
I wonder if anonymous can say the same.

mike said...

I've been blogging on the MATA office at the Forum for years. It's been "hiding in plain sight" all along, begging to be investigated. But I am also sure I read somewhere that MATA itself chipped in a million or more to the construction of the Forum in the guise of that office.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't someone check the minimum qualifications that were posted for the MPO coordinator in the first place? It's strange how this appoinment was made since the person chosen has no planning background, no transportation experience, no management experience etc. and no one knows how she even got on the list of people to be interviewed. She still has to have someone who sits behind her at all the meetings to tell her the answers to any questions. It's a farce.

Anonymous said...

My goodness!!
Sounds like some MPO staffers have put down their newspapers in the office and decided to rant about how unfair it all is that they actually have to WORK some.

might have to finish typing their resumes or eeoc complaints on the office PC so they can claim they DID something today!

How ungrateful the gummint must be in not recognizing all that misplaced talent.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: You may be right about the $1M from MATA, but we've been unable to find anything about a direct appropriation. But then again, since the garage project required the MPO to shift priorities, it could conceivably have cost MATA some funding in the process.

Anonymous said...

It looks to me like the MPO director is finding time to read blogs while accusing the rest of us of reading the paper.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that the director isn't qualified for her job. Apparently, sucking up to your boss is the first requirement and she's done really, really good at that.

Anonymous said...

And why is someone beating up employees filing eeoc complaints and harassment complaints? Talk about blame the victim! Maybe the FBI will look into why there are so many complaints and lawsuits being filed by emlpoyees in that dpeartment.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it great that Matt Snyder is such an expert on Homeland Security and Martha Lott? Let me ask this, why is a member of the Shelby County Fire Department working for the MPO office or the Homeland Security office? Is that what his position calls for him to do?
Matt is a nice guy but everyone who knows him knows he's a major suck up and right now Ted Fox and Martha Lott are as close as he can get to Wharton.
You won't win any arguments with AC. He never met a problem that he is ever responsible for.
When this mess all shakes out wonder who'll get the pleasure of being that scape goat. Did I hear Ted or Martha!

Matt Snyder said...

I see we still haven’t worked on that character problem. Still taking pot shot from the shadows.

Anonymous said...

The two of you need to shut up and stay in the hole you belong in. EMA is a joke because of you.

Anonymous said...

Maybe some answers will be revealed on Fox 13 News tonight at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Supposedly, this will be a multi-part I-Team report. If the baseball game runs over, the newscast will be right after. Date: October 9, 2006. Check it out.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a bunch of geniuses. I sure wish you guys were running things with all of your knowledge. I don't see how our mayor overlooked this group as he built his brain trust. And so brave, with anonymous posts. Thanks for all of you great solutions, oh nevermind.

Anonymous said...

Matt Snyder ended up the scape goat.
Martha Lott and Ted Fox are as big a snakes as AC Wharton and John Fowkes.

www.islas-baleares-3d.com said...

It will not succeed in reality, that's exactly what I think.