Hazardous sidewalks trump FBI probe in Bridgeport
BRIDGEPORT — The city is moving forward with a sidewalk repair program awarded to a firm named in a subpoena related to an ongoing FBI probe.
G. Pic and Sons Construction was selected in 2017 for a pilot program that covers half the costs of repairing hazardous private sidewalks if the property owners agree to pay the balance.
The city budgeted $3 million for the shared-expense initiative. With over $2.45 million left, according to municipal documents, the Public Facilities Department is asking the City Council to approve $182,586 — Bridgeport’s share — for 38 sidewalk upgrades.
G. Pic is one of three local contractors listed in a subpoena issued in early February. Federal agents investigating allegations of illicit scrap metal sales and no-bid contracts involving Public Facilities have subpoenaed four years’ worth of documents and communications related to G. Pic, Vaz Quality Works and Seaview Equipment.
None of the three companies has been accused of wrongdoing. Still, Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration recently delayed the long-awaited, $500,000 state-funded improvements to Fairfield Avenue in Black Rock because Vaz was awarded that bid in January.
But rather than similarly hit pause on G. Pic’s sidewalk work, council members are moving to authorize the expense. On March 4, the full council forwarded the list of 38 pending sidewalk repairs to its Public Safety Committee, which unanimously approved them the following evening. The repairs will be back before the full council Monday for a final vote.
According to the Public Safety Committee’s meeting minutes, no one present raised any questions about the FBI investigation or about G. Pic, including Council President Aidee Nieves. Nieves, however, did tell Public Facilities officials she wanted a full report on the program to gauge its success.
Nieves said Thursday that she was initially in favor of pausing G. Pic’s sidewalk contract. But, she said, because the list of proposed repairs exists, Bridgeport could be successfully sued if the city does not act and someone trips or is otherwise injured on one of the included sidewalks.
“We can be held liable because we were put on notice something was defective and we didn’t do anything about it,” Nieves said.
She added, however, that once this pending work is completed, the contract should be rebid.
Councilman Kyle Langan, a Public Safety Committee member who admitted he had not considered the FBI probe when voting on the sidewalks last week, said he now believes the program should be paused.
“Any company that’s named in these subpoenas, although innocent until proven guilty, we have to do the responsible thing ... until we find out what actually happened,” Langan said this week.
Ganim’s office did not return a request for comment.
The sidewalk cost-sharing initiative was created by the Ganim administration in 2016 as a temporary pilot program that would expire once the $3 million was spent.
Bridgeport is covered with miles of broken sidewalks and has the authority to force homeowners to make repairs, but has rarely done so. Meanwhile, many residents wrongfully assume all sidewalks are the city’s responsibly, and City Hall gets sued when someone falls on a damaged section.
So the Public Facilities department suggested offering homeowners the incentive of paying for half the work and providing the contractor, in this case G. Pic, which also has the contract to fix the sidewalks on public property.
Property owners that do not participate or do not repair their hazardous sidewalks on their own face property liens.
When the cost-sharing proposal was originally presented to the council, then-Deputy Public Facilities Director Joe Tiago was overseeing sidewalk work in the city.
Ganim fired Tiago in February, following an internal review of anonymous allegations that Public Facilities workers were selling scrap metal for cash — the same allegations the FBI is also probing.
The mayor has not specified what Tiago did wrong, and Tiago’s union is fighting the termination. Tiago has a financial relationship with the owners of Vaz Quality Works and has hired a criminal defense attorney.
The FBI investigation aside, the shared-expense sidewalk effort has been criticized for other reasons. Langan and Councilman Peter Spain have questioned whether it forces property owners into expensive, but not necessarily urgent, repairs.
The majority of the properties on the current list of 38 repairs are being charged in the $1,500 to $3,500 range. A few are closer to $6,000 and $9,000, with Success Village Apartments responsible for $75,627 worth of sidewalk upgrades.
“If anyone says anything about your sidewalk it is on the slate for repair and you only have two options at that point - repair it yourself or get into the (shared expense) program,” Langan said this week. “I’ve gotten complaints in terms of people not having the means or the desire at that moment to repair their sidewalks (or) complaints (the damage) was this one area, and the city gave a quote for all the way to the end of the property.”
Spain recently contacted the Public Cacilities Department after a constituent complained that they called City Hall simply to learn about the sidewalk program and then received an order to make the repairs. Spain acknowledged the sidewalk in question might need “some repair” but “the situation is not dire or an emergency.”
Also this week, a local contractor who did not want their name published told Hearst Connecticut Media that they recently provided a price quote to a property owner on the list of sidewalk repairs currently before the council. This contractor’s quote was significantly cheaper, the contractor said, and they wondered why the city was using only G. Pic for the work.
Langan said it is time for the council to conduct a thorough review.
“I think it works most times, but there’s definitely some massive question marks to be answered,” Langan said. “This is a pilot program. ... Is there a reason we haven’t re-evaluated the program over a year in?”