Roll out the Red Tape

How many bureaucrats does it take to fill a pothole at a Dade County school? The author would like to tell you, but he's still counting.

I faxed Ingram a memo telling him the city manager would need one small item immediately in order to proceed. Later in the day, in response to my request, Ingram faxed a memo to Southern " confirm the fact that Dade County Public School [sic] is obligated to pay the City of Miami Springs for the paving work describe [sic] on requisition #01184039. No other signatures are require [sic].... "

Southern said that memo, despite its faults, would do the trick.
I called Ingram to thank him, and to ask if maybe he'd overstated the amount of money I'd saved the taxpayers. Would the same work really cost the school system as much as $53,165? "It probably would," Ingram replied. "Maybe not quite that much, but it would definitely cost us at least $20,000. We pay premium dollars."

On March 9, relieved but still curious about how much money I'd actually saved taxpayers, I called Ingram's boss, Bhagwan ("Buck") Gupta, associate superintendent for the school system's Bureau of Facilities Management.

Gupta's own guess was that the $3165 paving job "would cost $9500 if the school system did it." He was almost eager to admit that the system pays far more than it ought to pay for any kind of construction. Whenever possible, he said, he tries to get outside agencies to perform construction work such as the Springview paving job. "It always saves money," he added.

Gupta maintained that much of the blame for the school system's inflated construction costs can be assigned to needless laws and regulations. If the system itself were to pave 198 feet of swale in front of Springview, he said, state regulations probably would require him to hire "an architect or an engineer to draw a plan -- at least $2500 for a job that size."

If needless laws and regulations were eliminated, I asked, could the system buy 30 percent, 40 percent, or 50 percent more for the same money? He answered without hesitation: "No doubt about it."

On March 11, there were two items in my mailbox. The first was the note from Superintendent Visiedo telling me that our school system -- our "responsive" and "efficient" school system -- was entirely worthy of my gratitude.

The note was dated March 8, the same day I'd learned that the system had almost completely botched the job by sending the city manager an unsigned Emergency Purchase Request instead of a signed purchase order. The second piece of mail was the signed purchase order -- not a copy, the original. It had been sent to the wrong address because someone in the school system erroneously believed the Miami Springs public works department was located in my home.

I phoned the official to whom the purchase order said one should "direct all inquires [sic]," and I told him about the mistake. Then, just in case anything went wrong, I faxed the purchase order to Southern and followed up with a phone call. After a good laugh, Southern told me not to worry; the paving would be started and completed, under the current contract, during spring break, when the kids wouldn't be around to get in the way.

But on March 22, two weeks before the start of spring break, the school system sent Southern a five-page fax indicating that the system wasn't really quite ready to pay for the paving job.

The cover sheet featured a scrawled memo to Southern from Mike Levine, a supervisor in the system's site planning and government liaison department: "Please be advised that this document is still being reviewed by our Legal Department and Risk Management Department. I would appreciate receiving your comments as soon as possible."

The document, stamped prominently with the word "DRAFT," was a proposed agreement between the school system and the city. It featured two "whereas" sections; a lengthy "now therefore" section that, among other things, would require the city to "indemnify and save harmless" the School Board of Dade County "to the extent of the limitations included within Florida Statutes, Section 768.28, subject to the provisions in this Act whereby...." et cetera; and an Exhibit "A" map, "attached hereto and made part hereof," that purported to show the location of "a parent drop-off area."

If the school system insisted on this agreement, our little paving job would have to wait -- heaven knows how long -- for an affirmative vote by the school board, for an affirmative vote by the city council, and for the signatures of the mayor of Miami Springs, the chairperson of the school board, the Miami Springs city manager, the superintendent of schools, a lawyer for the City of Miami Springs, and a lawyer for the school board.

Southern gave me the impression he was ready to tell the school system exactly where to stuff that proposed agreement.

"Why not just ignore it," I suggested subversively. "It's only a draft. And the school-system documents you already have in hand should be more than enough to allow the work to go forward."

No way, said the city manager. At minimum he'd need to have the document reviewed by the city attorney, a private-sector type who billed the city by the hour. Then, assuming there was nothing objectionable in the document -- which was unlikely, he said -- he'd still want the city council to consider it.

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