After years of rubber-stamping escalating spending requests, the Metro Council is now wondering how the cost of a planned $6.5 million mosquito abatement facility has nearly doubled in price.
One reason: high-end additions—like Silestone countertops, custom tinted windows and an $1,800 rat sculpture case. Then there’s this: How did Gary Beard and his company wrangle project management fees in excess of $1.2 million?
In June 2014, the Metro Council approved $6.5 million for the design and construction of a new facility for the city-parish Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control district.
At the time, the agency was operating out of the same 7,000-square-foot building on airport property that had been its home since 1980—a cramped, aging structure directly across from the parish prison. So no one much questioned the need for a newer, bigger facility.
Not that the Metro Council questioned MARC much anyway. Though the council technically has to sign off on MARC’s expenditures, the procedure is typically a mere formality. MARC has its own dedicated property tax millages, which together generate some $8.9 million a year. Like other agencies with dedicated funding streams, the district is entrusted to manage its money wisely and is otherwise left alone—and unchecked.
Nearly five years later, however, questions are arising over whether that trust is misplaced. The $6.5 million building project, originally slated to be 45,000 square feet, has expanded into a three-building, 65,000-square-foot complex with a total budget of nearly $11.4 million, more than $11.1 million of which has already been spent. As troubling, the scope of work continues to grow, even as parts of the project remain unfinished. In the meantime, MARC continues to partially use its aging facility, which agency officials plan to eventually renovate to house a tire shredder.
There are many reasons the MARC complex, which includes three metal structures—a 15,000-square-foot administrative building, an airplane hangar and a storage shed—has grown so expensive and taken so long to complete.
There were delays caused by the August 2016 flood. There were unforeseen problems with the soil at the site, which somehow went undetected during initial surveys and required months of excavation to remediate.
But there were also hundreds of questionable change orders, many which replaced materials in the original bid specs with high-end products and amenities that wouldn’t be out of place in the city’s swankiest office building. Ceramic tile. Silestone countertops. Switchable glass windows that automatically adjust opacity. Collectively, the scores upon scores of changes and upgrades not only dragged out the project’s timeline but also escalated the cost.
As the scope and cost of the project have grown, so, too, have the fees paid to the project’s program manager—an engineer and former state lawmaker by the name of Gary Beard. His firm, Beard International, has seen its original contract nearly triple, ballooning from $478,790 in 2015 to more than $1.2 million to date.
Beard, who also works as a subcontractor to the firm that does program management at the airport—a deal that earned him more than $415,000 over the past two years alone—has been a central figure in the evolution of the MARC project, shepherding it through the approval process, requesting some of the change orders, and in some cases even drafting the verbiage of spending requests that appeared verbatim on Metro Council agendas.
Not surprising, Beard and the MARC executive director to whom he has become an indispensable advisor—a bearded entomologist named Todd Walker, who is quick to profess his ignorance of matters related to construction and buildings—go on the defensive when asked about the new facility and its rising costs. They counter the complex is badly needed and is being built to intentionally high standards so that it will last for decades. Moreover, both say, every penny of the construction budget has gotten Metro Council approval.
All of which is true. The actual construction cost of the MARC complex has remained under a revised $8.7 million construction budget that was approved by the Metro Council one year after it passed the original $6.5 million budget.
But what’s also true is that the overall scope of the project—and the total budget—has grown due to supplemental spending requests for ancillary items like a “smart” fence, a new sidewalk and more program management fees, which now account for 15% of the $11.12 million project cost to date.
Metro Council members acknowledge they should have read the fine print more closely and paid better attention to the spending requests they signed off on. By their own admission they were lax, which is what makes the story of the mosquito abatement project so interesting—and significant. The mea culpa raises these questions: How many other agencies with dedicated funding are out there spending without adequate oversight, and what will it take to change?
“You make assumptions that the dedicated tax dollars are being spent wisely,” Metro Councilmember Donna Collins-Lewis says. “But then it comes to the point where you say, ‘Wait a minute, something is wrong.’ And something is wrong here.”
Reporting for this story came from a review of thousands of documents, including emails, public meeting minutes and City Hall records made available to Business Report through a public records request, as well as interviews with dozens of sources familiar with the project, some of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity. The general contractor for the project, Ratcliffe Construction, and both architecture firms involved, Crump Wilson and RCL Architecture, declined to comment.
‘Looked like a Burger King’
When planning for the new MARC facilities began in early 2014, program management duties fell to the engineering firm—URS—that, at the time, had the roughly $3 million annual contract to do program management for the Baton Rouge Metro Airport. Because MARC is a tenant of the airport, it wasn’t unusual that the firm doing program management for the airport would also provide the same services for one of its tenants.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, URS put one of its subcontractors on the project—Gary Beard, who was on retainer to do program management for URS and, at the time, was also serving as a member of the Airport Commission. Beard says he was actually one of several team members from URS who helped plan the MARC complex. But he was clearly the lead person on the job and the only one with a publicly visible role, according to emails and minutes from public meetings related to the project.
As early as April 2014, Beard was advising Walker, MARC’s executive director, on plans for the new facility and offering to help answer any questions the MARC board of commissioners might have about the project. (The MARC board serves in an advisory capacity and meets quarterly to review agency matters.)
In an email on April 17, 2014, Beard asks Walker, “How are your options looking with the Board members?”
Walker replies that a special meeting was scheduled for May 15, adding, “If you can come and be available to help answer questions that would be great.”
Beard replies, “We’ll be there …”
When it was time to bring the matter to the Metro Council a month or so later, Beard was even more deeply involved, emailing two airport staffers a description of the project with the exact wording of the spending request that was then forwarded verbatim, records show, to the Metro Council staff to place on the council meeting agenda.
“EBRMARC is currently planning to consolidate its facilities on the property of the Metro Airport,” the Beard-authored item read. “This $6.5 million project will include design, construction, inspection and program management for a new building complex of approximately 45,000 square feet.”
The council passed the measure. Crump Wilson Architects, which had done preliminary drawings of the facility from which the $6.5 million cost estimate was based, was selected through a public procurement process to do the design.
But within months, Crump Wilson was at odds with Beard and Walker over “disagreements for the vision of the new facility,” minutes from a February 2015 MARC board meeting show. The minutes suggest the architect wanted to keep the project simple in an effort to save money. Beard and Walker had other ideas.
At that February meeting, Walker complained to his board that “everything he took to the architect, (the architect) would say was too expensive,” minutes show. “The architect wanted to do a metal building complex, keep it simple, (keep) design costs down …”
Later in the meeting, Beard echoed Walker’s criticisms, telling the board the Crump Wilson design “looked like a Burger King and Dr. Walker agreed.”
Beard went on to tell the board “it had reached a point where the architect did not want to have anything else to do with the project and it would probably be in the best interest of MARC to accept this.”
Crump Wilson declines comment on the matter, but records show the firm initiated termination of the contract. Beard and Walker maintain that the original building designed by Crump Wilson was insufficient to meet their needs and say the design was “incomplete.”
In any case, once ties with Crump Wilson were severed, the project automatically went to the firm that had scored second in the procurement process, Mandeville-based RCL Architecture. When that firm came back with its proposal, construction costs alone for the project had swelled to an estimated $10 million.
It’s unclear why the revised plans were so much more expensive, but when MARC brought RCL’s contract to the Metro Council for approval, council members expressed concern about the estimated price tag. They narrowly approved retaining RCL, but indicated MARC would have to cut costs, according to minutes from a May 2015 MARC board meeting, at which a worried Walker discussed the rare instance of push back from the Metro Council with his board.
Once again, Beard was a central figure in the discussions. According to minutes from the meeting, Walker told the board that, “… Gary Beard is working very hard on trying to convert the Council members to our side,” adding that he was “working with the new architect to see what we can afford.”
By September, Beard and RCL had managed to lower construction cost estimates to $8.7 million. This was still 33% more than the original project proposed by Crump Wilson but the project size had been increased to some 65,000 square feet, with Walker arguing he’d be able to save money in the long run by consolidating facilities spread around the airport into the single, larger new complex.
The Metro Council went along without question, approving a $3.9 million supplemental appropriation for the project—$2.2 million to cover the additional construction costs for the new, larger complex plus $1.7 million in program management and design fees.
It’s important to note that at the time, URS—with Beard as its point man—was still program manager for the project, a service for which it ultimately was paid $364,000. But after the new budget supplement was approved, the city-parish purchasing department, at MARC’s request, issued a RFP for a separate program manager for the project. Two firms responded, CSRS and Beard International. Beard International was selected, and in November 2015, an item appeared on the Metro Council agenda to appropriate $478,000 in program management fees for the firm.
If Metro Council members didn’t think it strange, airport commissioner Andrew McCandless did. The Airport Commission, like the MARC board of commissioners, exists in an advisory capacity only. Still, the commission had been kept apprised of the MARC construction project planned for its property and McCandless couldn’t understand why Beard’s firm was suddenly going to manage the project.
“I thought the airport was managing this?” McCandless wrote in a Nov. 11, 2015, email to then Airport Director Anthony Marino and Jared Smith, then chair of the airport commission. “So this project is now being managed by Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control?”
Marino replied, “Their board decided to have their selected firm manage the project.”
Despite this exchange, there is no entry in the minutes from any of the three meetings held by the MARC board in 2015 of any discussion or vote related to awarding a program management contract to Beard International. Nor did the proposals go before the City-Parish Engineer’s and Surveyor’s Selection Board, which, according to the parish attorney’s office, typically selects program managers for projects of this size.
Who, then evaluated the proposals and selected Beard International?
The parish attorney’s office cannot say. Purchasing Department Director Patti Wallace says her records indicate the firm was chosen by Walker.
Beard, however, maintains someone at MARC put together a professional selection committee to evaluate the proposals. He says he recalls appearing before the committee and answering questions but doesn’t remember any other details.
City Hall was unable to produce any records of that selection process. Walker did not return a call seeking comment.
In the scheme of things, it may seem like a detail deep in the weeds but it’s significant. Under the initial program management arrangement, Beard was being paid by the airport as a subcontractor to manage the project. Under the new deal, Beard was still being paid as a subcontractor by the airport and his firm was also now being paid by MARC—$478,000 for the first 15 months and more as the project kept going longer.
Questionable change orders
The project broke ground in July 2016 and almost from the get-go, it was plagued by problems. First, there was the historic flood of August 2016. Though the property itself wasn’t impacted by flood waters, the event slowed construction because of the dent rebuilding elsewhere in the region put in the local workforce.
“That was one of the biggest problems,” Beard says. “There was no workforce. Everybody left to go take care of their families and fix their own homes.”
Another significant challenge was the condition of the soil on which the facility was being built—a former swamp with tree stumps, root balls and other “organic matter” that made it difficult to build on, says Beard, who explains that an initial site test did not detect the problem. He estimates the remediation added several hundreds of thousands of dollars to the project.
Once the soil problems were addressed and the physical structure was underway, however, Beard International and RCL ordered hundreds of other changes that increased the cost of the project and dragged out the duration of the construction. Six-inch pavers were upgraded to eight-inch for some 15,000-square feet of walkway at an additional cost of $11,297. A flagpole plaza was added for $3,810, as was nearly $16,000 worth of wall letters and additional lighting.
In many instances, the increases were small but they added up and were, arguably, unnecessary. A change order replacing the laminate countertop in the administrative building breakroom with Silestone, a solid surface product that looks like granite, increased the total cost of the job to $86,977 from $83,293. It was just a few thousand dollars but C&C Millworks owner Pat Spano, who did the work, says he questions the spending, particularly because the laminate was more than adequate for the job.
“I install that product at The Lake, Baton Rouge General and Woman’s Hospital. They all use laminate,” Spano says. “If it’s good enough for the hospitals in this city, how is it not good enough for the mosquito building?”
Walker says they upgraded to Silestone “because it lasts and we wanted something nice for our personnel.”
One of the more extravagant examples was a February 2017 change order for switchable glass—which has an automatic adjustable opacity— for the conference room windows in the administration building. The architect, RCL, ordered the change at an additional cost of some $26,853. The vendor who sold the product to MARC says it didn’t make any sense—particularly because Beard was personally involved in the process and kept insisting on using a pricey Irish product called SmartGlass, instead of a comparable glass from Texas.
“It was like three times the cost of what we could have gotten here in the states,” says Blaine Boudreaux of Capital Glass. “It was a headache, trying to get this out of Ireland and it took several months to get here.”
Walker and Beard defend the high-end items. They say the windows in the building are so large that blinds would have been more expensive in the long run. They say switchable glass is more energy efficient and that the Irish product was superior to the domestic one, despite Boudreaux’s assertion to the contrary.
“We’re trying to save the public money,” Walker says. “There is a tremendous amount of heat that comes in the western face of the building from the sun. This will keep energy costs down. Look, we’re trying to build something that is going to last for the next 50 years.”
More importantly, Beard maintains the change orders on those products did not push the project over budget. He points out that the Metro Council appropriated $8.7 million for construction and that the construction budget has remained under that figure. (Some $8.63 million has been spent to date on construction.) He says the pricier amenities and products were added back in as change orders because the original bid specs intentionally called for less expensive products to keep costs down.
“When we put the project out to bid we had taken a lot of things out that we originally wanted because we were afraid it would be over budget,” Beard says. “Then, when the bid (from Ratcliffe) came back in at $7.2 million we knew we could add some of the nicer things back in that might cost more but would keep operational and maintenance costs lower in the long run.”
But just because there was money to spare does that mean it needed to be spent? Moreover, the change orders added to the timeline, during which Beard was able to extend his firm’s program management contract three times—in January 2017, October 2017 and March 2018.
Last November, the Metro Council approved still more spending for the project to include a new security fence with cameras and monitors. Included in the $300,000 appropriation was yet another $69,000, specifically earmarked for program management fees for Beard International.
By then, even Metro Council members were beginning to question the project.
“Sixty-nine thousand dollars to manage construction of a fence?” asked Councilman Scott Wilson at the time. “This is taxpayer’s money and I think we need to get a handle on it.”
‘Trying to pull a fast one’
Still, questions over the additional construction costs for the fence might have only raised a few eyebrows had not Beard made what some interpreted to be a brazen move to snag the program management contract for a tire shredder program—before the council had even approved the program.
Walker had long wanted to buy a tire shredder for MARC to help address the problem of abandoned tires—which collect water and breed mosquitoes—in blighted areas of the parish. With his old facility now vacant he had a place to set it up and, arguably, a way to expand the operations of his agency.
In mid-2018, he secured more than $600,000 in grant funding for a shredder from the Centers for Disease Control and began planning to renovate the old MARC facility to accommodate the heavy machine and the truckloads full of tires that would be accessing it on a regular basis.
Metro Councilman Matt Watson had questions. As chairman of a council blight committee, he’d also been interested in acquiring a shredder for the city-parish, and was glad to learn of MARC’s grant award and plans to spearhead the program.
But Watson didn’t understand why MARC was quoting prices for a stationary shredder, which would remain on airport property, requiring an expensive generator for power, rather than a portable one that could travel around the parish to hit the problem spots. Watson says he asked Walker and Beard not to move forward until they met with him so they could work together.
But in September 2018, an item from MARC was placed on the Metro Council agenda to execute “a supplemental agreement for Professional Services with Beard International in connection with the shredder project. … The amount of the contract will not exceed $188,700, and will be extended to March 1, 2019.” It was co-sponsored by Watson and Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker.
Metro Council members receive an email every time an item is placed on the agenda of an upcoming meeting. When the MARC item appeared in Watson’s inbox, he was stunned. Not only had he asked Beard and Walker to talk to him about any shredder-related item they intended to bring to the Metro Council, but he had not agreed to sponsor the item bearing his name.
He fired off a perplexed email to Council Administrator Ashley Beck that simply read, “????”
Beck also was confused. Watson had told her of his interest in the issue and asked her to be on the lookout for any items having to do with the tire shredder. When she saw the agenda item, followed by Watson’s “????,” she immediately called the MARC office and asked Walker’s administrative assistant how the item had found its way onto the council agenda. Though all city-parish agencies are allowed to directly place items for consideration on Metro Council agendas, this one clearly did not have the backing of the council member who was purportedly co-sponsoring it.
“I asked what the story was and the woman who puts council agenda items on for MARC said Gary Beard had told her they had to get it on the agenda and they had to get it on before the agenda deadline,” Beck says.
Beck pulled the item, which most people never saw, before it could get onto the final agenda and the issue of extending Beard’s contract to oversee the tire shredder program didn’t come up—at least not then.
Asked about the sequence of events, Beard suggests there was a misunderstanding. He says he was asked by MARC to submit an estimated cost to extend his contract for the tire shredder project but that he never asked anyone at MARC to put an item on a Metro Council agenda.
“I was asked to send in a proposal,” he says. “But I don’t have any authority to submit anything to the council.”
Watson isn’t buying it, saying, “It appears someone was trying to pull a fast one.”
Beard got a second crack at the contract extension in November, when Walker went to the council seeking $1.6 million for the tire shredder program. Council members were baffled. How, they wanted to know, had the cost of a $600,000 tire shredder that the CDC had already agreed to fund with a $600,000 grant, ballooned to $1.6 million? A defensive and emotional Walker found himself at a loss for words in the council chambers, unable to explain his own budget. The request was deferred until January.
As it turned out, Walker’s budget also included $334,000 for, arguably, unnecessary road improvements, $200,000 in program management fees, and $178,500 in architectural and design services. After meeting with officials from the department of development, which said it could do the program management and design work for MARC, Walker came back to the council with a revised $888,000 request—about half what he had originally sought.
The measure was approved and for now, at least, MARC is moving forward with plans to renovate its old facility to make way for a federally-funded tire shredder—with the help of the city-parish department of development, not Beard International.
Too many details … too little oversight
Looking back, Metro Council members now say even though they periodically raised an eyebrow, they were too lax and should have asked more questions about the change orders and contract extensions. Though every change order goes on a Metro Council agenda—the solid surface countertops, the tinted windows—there’s a lot of stuff on a council agenda and a lot of the details, well, they fall through the cracks.
“With all the hundreds of items on the agenda, we don’t have time to dig deeply into every one of them,” Collins-Lewis says. “Not that that is an excuse.”
Watson and others agree.
“I’m not trying to make any excuses but there is a lot of stuff that gets brought up—final acceptances, change orders, things of that nature,” he says, “and if you look at how Metro Council meetings go, sometimes all those items are taken at once.”
Metro Councilman Dwight Hudson says he is working with the Council Administrator’s office and the Finance Department to come up with a way to make it easier to spot change orders on the agenda and get a better handle on what they really mean within the context of the project “so we’ll know what questions to ask.”
Watson says he’d like to move all issues related to construction projects—change orders, contracts, final acceptances—to the monthly planning and zoning committee meetings, which typically run just a fraction of the time that regular Metro Council meetings do.
“That may open a little more opportunity for people to read more of the fine print,” he says.
But it’s easy to look for solutions once questionable spending is brought into the light. Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg says it’s something that should have happened long before now.
“I trusted our people, our city officials, to be looking at that and I trusted them to be giving that oversight even though I realize the airport and MARC are ultimately under us,” she says. “Now I’ll be paying better attention.”