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KELLY: Keep The Name, Carry The Shame

March 20, 2019 GMT

In the building game, incidental expenses are called “soft costs.” Soft costs include architectural and engineering fees, legal fees, pre- and post-construction expenses, permits, taxes, insurance and other “add-ons” that can really add up. Soft costs are paid with hard money. When I see a “soft costs” line item in a public document, my scalp tingles. When I see “Highland Associates” and “soft costs” in the same public document, it’s like somebody dumped a bucket of fire ants on my head. The city paid the Clarks Summit-based architecture, engineering and interior design firm $39,500 for an assessment of City Hall, which was built in 1888 and immediately put on a deferred maintenance plan. In a 320-page report, Highland lays out the cost of renovating the building at $10.7 million. On Monday, city council voted to seek a $5.3 million state grant to fund half of the renovation cost. They can’t just pull cash from the ceiling. Highland Associates cast the lone proposal on the City Hall assessment, which wouldn’t be a red flag if not for the firm’s recent past. Fewer than 15 years ago, Highland Associates principals bribed Lackawanna County Commissioners Bob Cordaro and A.J. Munchak to keep lucrative county contracts. Then-owners Don Kalina, Kevin Smith and Domenic Provini were granted immunity to testify against Cordaro and Munchak, who were sentenced in January 2012 to a combined 18 years in federal prison. Kalina, Smith and Provini cashed out of Highland and went on with their soft lives. A.J. did seven years in prison and is a free man today. Bob is still in the federal jug, scheduled for release in 2021. Highland has different owners today, but the firm’s recent history should disqualify it from landing any public contracts. They chose to keep the name. Let them carry the shame. I called Highland on Tuesday to ask for details about the $1.45 million in soft costs it projected for the City Hall project. I was told to direct all questions to the city. City council President Pat Rogan raised the vague line item at Monday’s meeting, and told me Tuesday that it will be discussed with Highland representatives at next Monday’s caucus. Also on the agenda: Whether it makes more sense to sell the building and move city offices to a newer, less decrepit location. Mayor Bill Courtright said he’s not sure a sale would even be legal and would rather stay put, if possible. “Personally, I would like to stay in this building, but I don’t know if it’s feasible,” he said. “I’m open to all options.” On the soft costs, Courtright directed me to Business Manager Dave Bulzoni. While I had him on the phone, I asked the mayor whether he was open to discussing the FBI investigation into his campaign finances. “You’ll have to talk to my lawyer about that,” he said. Bulzoni said the City Hall assessment job was advertised in The Times-Tribune, and that city officials were “delighted” Highland submitted a bid. He said the firm has “done really good work” for the city on other projects, and if the administration decides to go forward with renovations, Highland will have to bid for the work, just like any other firm. Fair enough, as long as the mayor and council insist on casting a wider net for proposals. If they extend the opportunity beyond the city limits, they just might find a firm that never paid bribes in exchange for public money. CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, feels like City Hall was sold out decades ago. Contact the writer: kellysworld@timessha­­mrock.com, @cjkink on Twitter. Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.co­­m/kelly.