By Mike Diamond
Published: 5:06 a.m. ET April 28, 2022 Updated: 2:00 p.m. ET April 28, 2022
Damon Robling had reason to believe that his Greenacres-based construction company would be awarded one of two contracts to oversee renovations of Fire Rescue stations during the next five years.
After all, the county’s purchasing agent and a special master, a county-appointed lawyer to review the bid process, concluded that his company and Kast Construction of West Palm Beach were the most qualified to monitor the work.
But on March 22, the commission voted 4-3 to ignore the recommendation of its purchasing agent, replacing Robling with CORE Construction, a company whose partner is D. Stephenson Construction. Both CORE and Stephenson are based in Broward County.
The purchasing agent, Kathleen Scarlett, found that CORE/Stephenson were not entitled to receive credit for having a local office in Delray Beach. She reported that the lease limited occupancy to just one person, hardly enough to qualify for local preference points. Without the points, CORE/Stephenson fell to the third most qualified firm, and the work would have been given to Robling if the commission accepted her recommendation.
Nonetheless, Commissioners Mack Bernard, Dave Kerner, Maria Sachs and Gregg Weiss voted to give the work to CORE. Mayor Robert Weinroth and Commissioners Melissa McKinlay and Maria Marino voted against doing so.
The vote not only angered Palm Beach County-based contractors; it also upset Marino.
“If some of our board members don’t like the results, they try to change the process,” she said on March 22. “You can hate me for my comments. I don’t care. Staff did their job, and this was all reinforced by the special master.”
Strong pushback is coming from Robling, Kast and The Florida East Coast Chapter of Associated General Contractors (AGC).
The work, they say, never should have been awarded to CORE/Stephenson. Dwight Stephenson, the National Football League Hall of Famer who played for the Miami Dolphins from 1980 to 1987, is the founder of D. Stephenson Construction.
Does CORE Construction have a base in Palm Beach County?
CORE subleases a small office from Stephenson Construction. A Palm Beach Post reporter on April 18 visited the office. No one was there. Neither CORE’s name nor Stephenson’s were on the front door listing the building’s tenants. And the tenants that were there said they had never heard of CORE or Stephenson.
Downstairs listing of offices at 401 W. Atlantic Ave. shows no presence of CORE Construction or Stevenson Construction, which contractors say shows that CORE should not have received credit for having a local office in Palm Beach County to obtain a lucrative construction management contract.
CORE submitted a receipt with an expired date in its proposal to the county. Anyone who provides merchandise or services to the public must obtain the business tax receipt in order to operate. The current tax receipt shows its headquarters is in Deerfield Beach, according to Scarlett. Stephenson’s is in Fort Lauderdale.
Initially, a county-appointed selection committee ranked CORE/Stephenson the most qualified firm. But that changed after Scarlett took away the points given to CORE/Stephenson for having a local office. CORE filed a bid protest but Special Master Robert Pritt of Fort Myers, in an Nov. 30, 2021 opinion, concluded, as she did, that a small, one-person office was not enough to qualify for having a presence in Palm Beach County.
To receive credit for “local preference,” the permanent place of business or headquarters must be in Palm Beach County, according to county regulations and that must be verified through a valid business tax receipt issued by the Palm Beach County Tax Collector.
Suite 9 on the second floor of offices at 401 W. Atlantic Ave. shows no presence of CORE Construction or Stephenson Construction, which contractors say shows that CORE should not have received credit for having a local office in Palm Beach County to obtain a lucrative construction management contract.
Lisa Reves, a West Palm Beach attorney who represented AGC, said the program to award local preference points is designed to benefit Palm Beach County businesses, not Broward County companies.
Michelle DePotter, the chief operation officer of AGC, said the commissioners who voted for CORE “took the whole procurement process and threw it in the trash can and demonstrated by their actions and vote, they will do as they please as policy makers. There were irregularities in the procurement process that permeated every aspect of the process from start to finish.”
Dave DeMay, a spokesman for Kast Construction, said in a prepared statement: “For the PBC Commission to do what they want, choose who they want, because they are the policy makers is extremely disturbing and dangerous.”
Roger Baum, senior vice president of CORE, called the complaints “sour grapes,” arguing that Scarlett focused on “a hyper technicality” to recommend the work be taken away.
“She served as the judge and jury and listened to people who were biased against us,” Baum said. “There are different ways on how to define a local office. We have one in Delray Beach, and we use it as needed. We never said it was our headquarters. Our proposal was far superior in terms of meeting the goal of providing more minority employment.”
Dwight Stephenson declined to comment.
Commissioners defend their choice: ‘We did our job. That’s all’
In 2019, the Miami-Dade Inspector General cited the company for failing to properly oversee renovation work at schools there from 2014 to 2016. The IG found that Stephenson used an unlicensed electrical contractor, submitted false statements and substituted firms without the approval of the school district. In April 2020, as part of a settlement, Stephenson agreed to have a contract terminated at one of the schools and and also “voluntarily agreed to not seek any new work from the School Board prior to August 15, 2020.”
Meanwhile, both Bernard and Kerner defended their vote on March 22 to award the work to CORE/Stephenson.
Bernard called “the process fair and transparent. The commission is a deliberative body; that’s why there are seven commissioners. We did our job. That’s all.”
Kerner noted that Robling failed to attend the March 22 meeting to make his case, adding that ultimately, it is the decision of the board and not the purchasing agent.
“The board acts as a rubber stamp for nobody, and large corporations do not make policy decisions. The lawfully elected representatives of the county make them,” Kerner said. “If corporations believe it was the other way around, I hope we have disabused them of that belief.”
It is the second time in less than two years that Kast and AGC have questioned the way the county has been awarding work to construction management firms.
The first time was in December 2020 after County Administrator Verdenia Baker canceled a contract that had been awarded to Kast. The scope of the oversight work then was much bigger; it included the construction of new fire stations as well as renovations of existing ones. The projects were expected to cost $125 million and generate construction management fees of more than $5 million. The county’s request for proposals called for only one firm to oversee the work.
Founded in 1998, KAST Construction is based in West Palm Beach and was awarded half of the recent county contract to renovate Palm Beach County Fire Rescue stations.
Kast was ranked number one; CORE/Stephenson number two. Kast received a congratulatory letter on Oct. 27, 2020. Then it received an email two months later from Baker saying the contract was canceled because the construction management work was too much for one firm.
“I don’t get it,” said Kast spokesman Dave DeMay. “It was their decision to have one company oversee the work. We were found to be the most qualified company and then they decide it is too much for one company?”
DeMay noted it is costly to submit a bid.
But the real loser, he said, are taxpayers and fire rescue. The project will cost much more with the surge in inflation and, even more important, he said, is that fire-rescue employees are working in stations in need of improvement.
KAST Construction workers on the site of a future 15-story mixed-use, multifamily project at 303 Banyan Boulevard in downtown West Palm Beach Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. KAST Construction of West Palm Beach is constructing the tower, which will include about 220 apartments and 3,000 square feet of retail.
The cancellation of the Kast contract in December 2020 resulted in AGC, of which Kast is a member, filing an ethics complaint against Baker. The county Ethics Commission ruled it did not have jurisdiction, referring the matter to Palm Beach County Inspector General John Carey. In a decision released to The Post last week, Carey ruled Baker had “the discretion” to cancel the contract.
Baker, in a prepared statement, said:
“The 2020 RFP was canceled after further review and discussion with staff prior to a contract being submitted to the Board. This RFP was for the entire Fire Rescue capital program for new and renovation of fire stations for ten years. This was an unusual, proposed contract and, in my opinion, not in the best interest of the taxpayers. I have the authority to cancel bids/proposals; however, I do not take canceling them lightly.
“The allegations and insinuations being made are absurd and unfounded. I have confidence in our procurement processes and at the end of this selection process, Kast Construction was one of the recommended vendors (for the contract awarded March 22).”
DeMay said he was warned not to criticize the county since he was one of the two construction management firms selected to oversee the renovation work.
“I cannot stay silent,” he said. “What happened was wrong. There is a pattern here. Anyone can see that.”
Mike Diamond covers Palm Beach County government and transportation. If you have a tip, he can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @michael06339386.