By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The tiny Broward town of West Park celebrated the opening last year of its first new park since its creation in 2005. But the head of the company that built Water Tower Park now says city officials’ financial shenanigans exposed the public to potential drinking water contamination, and forced his small business to play ball in a scheme to defraud the county.
Chris Facey, the owner of Pembroke Pines-based JZT Utilities, says that when he complained, West Park City Manager W. Ajibola Balogun withheld for a year money he was due for work on the job.
Water Tower Park sits on less than a half-acre of city land at 3900 SW 39th Ave. in the Lake Forest neighborhood of southeastern Broward. The city awarded the construction job to Facey’s general contracting firm, JZT Utilities, after competitive bidding. The agreement was signed in July 2018.
JZT’s work included grading, landscaping and the installation of an irrigation system, fencing, lighting, playground equipment, a shade structure, water fountain, benches and picnic tables. The contract cost: $448,000.
The park was mostly funded by a $300,000 county grant. In January, unhappy that the city had not made the final payment due him, Facey wrote to the county commission asking for their help. The letter detailed how the city had violated the contractual terms of the grant – and how it had attempted to cover up that violation. None of the commissioners responded, Facey said.
A similar email was sent to West Park Mayor Eric Jones and the city commission requesting their intervention. It, too, was ignored, Facey said.
The County Commission, at the urging of Commissioner Barbara Sharief, approved the grant in January 2017. As is typical of such grants, it contained a stipulation that the funds were non-recurring and could not be used to pay the city’s operational or administrative costs.
Facey says the city ignored that constraint when it came time to pay a $6,209.52 “capital recovery” assessment sent to the city by Broward’s Water and Wastewater Services department. Instead of paying that operational charge from a city budget, City Manager Balogun required Facey to pay it out of grant money he was being paid to build the park.
“The city didn’t want to pay it. They told me I needed to pay that, and how I would pay that,” said Facey. City Manager Balogun concocted a “strange maneuver” to reimburse him, reconcile the funds and make it happen, he said.
Why go to all that trouble? The agreement contains a clause that allows the county to recoup funds from the city “on account of fraud or misrepresentation.”
If the county learned the city had misapplied grant funds, it could revoke the grant.
Facey produced a variety of documentation to Florida Bulldog to back up his allegations, including numerous emails between the city, its project managers and him.
Balogun did not respond to phone messages and questions sent to him by email.
Paying the fee
In February 2019, at Balogun’s insistence, Facey paid the $6,200 fee on the city’s behalf. Facey said he was reimbursed under a line item in JZT’s contract “for work activities that were not performed.”
Facey explained the scheme to county commissioners this way in his Jan. 24 letter: “This payment was subsequently reimbursed to JZT by way of a bid line item that was deleted from the contract and credited to the city, but made to appear as though the deleted [work] item was actually perform[ed] thus providing a justification for the reimbursement for the Capital Recovery Charge.”
City Manager Balogun appears to have ordered the scheme. In a Feb. 5, 2019 email, he told Facey and a project manager the “fee to the county of $6,209.52 will be paid from the line item #4 budgeted at $15,000.”
That contract line item was for various water and sewer work on the site, some of which previously had been canceled as unnecessary.
“In 20 years plus in the industry I’ve never been instructed by a municipality to pay money on their behalf,” Facey said in an interview. “This is manipulation of a small business that does not have the resource to defend itself.”
Water Tower Park opened on April 30, 2019, the last day to be in compliance with the terms of grant. Less than two weeks later, a city plumbing inspector issued a notice of violation because a backflow preventer had not been installed at the irrigation line connection – meaning drinking water at the fountain might be contaminated.
The backflow preventer wasn’t installed initially because it was absent from the design. So along with ordering its installation, the violation notice also required an updated engineering letter and drawing incorporating the device into the design.
Water contamination concern
On May 17, project architect Zamarr T. Brown asked JZT to install the device. “The city has a concern that the domestic water supply may get contaminated with the irrigation supply,” Brown wrote in an email.
The backflow job wasn’t in the contract, but Facey said he reluctantly installed it after being assured the city would release certain withheld funds. “The city attempted to extort us by forcing us to perform work outside the scope of the contract in return for the prompt release of the retainage,” he said.
Retainage is money withheld from the contract by the city until the project is substantially complete.
While JZT installed the device, the updated paperwork wasn’t provided. In July, Balogun had the fountain bagged and temporarily taken out of service. It wasn’t until September when the project managers finally provided the paperwork to the city, which then closed out all permits.
The story doesn’t end there. According to Facey, for months the city of 14,156 residents refused to pay JZT the $20,000 it retained. The matter went to arbitration, and earlier this year the city released the retainage.
Still, Facey says he was forced to eat the cost of other work done at the city’s direction, including the purchase and installation of the backflow preventer device. “The city refused to pay citing the expiration of budgeted project funds,” he said.
“The city preyed on this small business’ inability to litigate such blatant injustice,” he said, adding that West Park’s actions “undermined the expressed purpose of the county’s small business initiative.”
It would seem unlikely that West Park will do business again with a small business owned by someone who has publicly condemned the way it does business. That’s fine with Facey, who said he won’t work for West Park again any time soon.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I want to be completely free of them.”