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A Hummel Report Investigation

In Limbo

A few months ago the state installed a controlled-access gate in one of the parking lots adjacent to the Rhode Island State House. But the project has been more headache than help, as the gate system turned out to be too narrow and had to be removed after a barrage of complaints. This week Jim Hummel talks with the state official overseeing the project - and a state senator who says government needs to treat every tax dollar as carefully as the taxpayers do themselves.

SCRIPT

Hummel: ``Some weeks we tackle issues involving millions of taxpayer dollars. This week we focus on a relatively small project here at the State House, but one that a state senator says is a reminder that government needs to treat the taxpayers' dollars as carefully as the taxpayers do themselves.''

It is prime real estate, in a place where parking spots are a coveted perk: the lower lot adjacent to the Rhode Island State House, where the majority of state reps and senators are assigned a spot. But it is not the easiest place to maneuver. And that's why several years ago the state planned a half million dollar overhaul of the area.

Schiappa: ``We were dealing with a lot of the issues this parking lot had.''

Marco Schiappa is the Facilities Manager for the State Department of Administration, which had architects draw up plans for an overhaul that would solve drainage issues, create a better circulation pattern and install a gate for controlled access to the site.

A Capitol Police officer monitors access to the upper lot, but budget cutbacks have left the lower lot booth empty. The project was funded and all set to go until Gov. Chafee pulled the plug on it shortly after taking over a year ago - because of the state's budget deficit.

Capitol Police, though, asked if the administration could at least put in a gate at the entrance. So it did, at a cost of $20,000. And this is what greeted Sen. Beth Moura and her colleagues when they arrived for a special session one day last fall.

Moura: ``I was pulling in, and I have a large SUV , so as I'm pulling in with maybe an inch or two on either side to get through, the rep was coming the other way, seeing me have to so carefully get through that space, he kind of laughed - like that's ridiculous.''

Schiappa: ``What really caused the problem that we figured out later was the fact the circulation pattern inside for these gates doesn't work because of the odd circulation that's going on today.''

And that's what we found - easy for the Smart Car to get in, but not so much for any larger vehicle, even without the gate.

Moura: ``When I saw the openings the first thing that came to my mind is:  there's definitely an industry standard in terms of....and I'm not a contractor, I don't have a construction background or anything like that - but my first thought was there's got to be an industry standard for width of openings and access gates for vehicles.''

Schiappa tells the Hummel Report that the original plan called for a widening of the opening and reconfiguration of the parking spaces out front. Instead someone from his office and RISTAN (Systems) - the firm that installed the gate - came up with their own design for just the gate.

That's what Schiappa told Senator Moura and Rep. Dan Gordon, when they met with him at the Department of Administration to get answers one day last month.

Moura: ``I realized that first thing that popped into my head was if I'm having a hard time getting through, how is a snow plow going to get through, without damaging or taking out those - they've got to be able to access the lot.''

There were so many complaints that the state eventually pulled out the center post out and paved it over - at a cost of an additional $760 - while officials figure out what to do. And that means taxpayers have spent more than $20,000 for a system that right now is nonfunctional.

Hummel: ``Did any red flags go off with the people who went over there, this may be a little narrow to get inside?''

Schiappa: ``It was a little narrow, but again, the rest of parking lot is extremely narrow and it was felt that we were basically trying to oblige by the request that was made to secure this gate. When I heard the complaints, and I heard the same complaint about the plows I talked to my manager, and he said, `Marco not a problem, believe me, not a problem they can fit.' And then finally after I heard it again, I said, `Just do me a favor, just drive a plow through it.' And he did and absolutely no problem.''

Hummel: ``He maintained to us, in our interview, that he felt it was wide enough and that you would be  able to get a plow in there. What's your answer to that?''

Moura: ``Well, is it still there? That's my answer. It's gone, right? It wasn't wide enough. He made the decision to say - well, after we spoke we did send a snowplow through and yes, they did  access and they were able to get in and out. And I responded by saying, `I'm sure that they did, without snow on the ground.  I'm quite sure they did.'"

Hummel: ``Ultimately what the plan was, whether it was RISTAN and your guy going out there, as designed by them, it was problematic ultimately, right?;;

Schiappa: ``It's definitely proven to be problematic. Clearly they did not feel it was problematic initially and I have driven through the gate myself when I heard the complaints. You could drive it. It did create some issues. The larger vehicles did definitely have issues.''

Hummel: ``What kind of vehicle were you driving when you went through?''

Schiappa: ``I was driving through with (a Ford) Explorer.''

Hummel: ``And how did you feel the fit was?''

Schiappa: ``I was fine. I mean it was tight, but I knew what I had to deal with when I was turning in.''

Hummel: ``You have a multi-billion dollar state budget. And a lot of people would say, `Senator, this is $20,000, and you know, when you put in your time and energy on this, why are you doing that?' How do you answer the skeptic who  would raise that issue?"

Moura: ``It's not just $20,000. If this same culture of carelessness, or the ease with which we spend taxpayer dollars is applied to every project, whether it be fixing a pothole, or rebuilding a bridge. Whether it's a million. Whether it's a million, a billion, or a thousand. It's not okay. I'm not looking for anyone's head, or to get anyone necessarily in trouble. I want their budget next year, to be reduced by the amount that was wasted. And everyone needs to understand and be held to the standard of treating every dollar that we spend like it's their own dollar.''

The Chafee Administration says it has not made a decision on whether to go forward with additional work on the lot.  So for now, the project remains...in limbo.

At the State House, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.

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