In April 2009, the Modesto City Council signed off on a $1.3 million public works project to upgrade the water quality control laboratory at the city’s Sutter Avenue wastewater treatment plant.
The upgrade included remodeling the lab and purchasing about $350,000 in sophisticated equipment that public works officials said would let staff do all of the lab’s testing, saving the time and money of sending some of the work to other labs. A city report said Modesto would save $144,347 annually by not having to use other labs.
But the project has not worked as expected.
Public works purchased three pieces of equipment in 2009 for about $343,000, and the upgrade was completed in 2010. But the lab never obtained the state-mandated certification for the equipment, so its test results can’t be submitted to the state and the lab must continue outsourcing the testing associated with the equipment.
Public works now wants to sell two of the three pieces because the lab cannot use the equipment enough to justify the cost of keeping it. Public works paid about $220,000 for the equipment it is looking to sell.
The lab’s shortcomings are outlined in a report of public works’ water and wastewater divisions prepared by Moss-Adams LLP, the certified public accounting and business consulting firm the city has retained as its auditor. The city released the report this month. Deputy City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said the study has cost the city about $80,000 and that nearly all the work has been completed.
Moss-Adams conducted its study from September to February. The report concluded that the two divisions suffer from a host of problems, including poor leadership, low morale and high turnover, and the city needs to reorganize public works and reform its leadership.
Williams-Ridley – who recently took on the duties of acting public works director – said city officials wanted the auditors to look at the lab because they knew it had problems. She added that the city has been and will continue to improve the lab and public works.
“Every step has been a step toward a better laboratory,” she said.
The lab tests the city’s drinking water, stormwater and wastewater to ensure they meet state and federal standards.
Besides problems with the new equipment, the auditor’s report states that because of the poor reputation of the lab and the quality of its work, more than half of the testing was outsourced in the 2012-13 fiscal year, which ended June 30.
Moss-Adams recommends the city consider outsourcing the lab’s operations, but says that’s a decision the city can’t make now. Moss-Adams says the lab needs to operate effectively for at least a year before the city can compare the benefits of keeping the lab vs. outsourcing.
The public works manager whose duties include overseeing the lab said the Moss-Adams report misses the mark in some areas. For instance, the auditors say the new equipment has never been fully functional and that lab employees do not have the experience to use it.
“The report implies the equipment has never run and we don’t know how to run it,” said Tom Sinclair, Modesto’s environmental regulatory compliance manager. “That’s not accurate.”
Lab supervisor Angie Smigelski questions how the auditors determined that more than half the lab work was outsourced in the 2012-13 fiscal year. She said the lab outsourced about 28 percent of its testing in calendar year 2013.
Smigelski said the only testing being outsourced is for the three pieces of equipment bought for the upgrade. One machines tests for metals, such as lead and mercury; another tests for pesticides; and the third tests for volatile organic compounds, such as formaldehyde. She said once the lab is certified to use the metal-testing equipment, it will be able to do 95 percent of its own lab work.
Sinclair said he expects the lab to get certified on the metal-testing equipment by the first quarter of 2015. He said under the best of circumstances, it takes about a year to achieve certification through the state’s Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program. He added that it doesn’t make sense to keep or get certified on the other equipment because the lab is no longer required to test as frequently for pesticides and volatile organic compounds.
He attributed much of the lab’s problems to budget and staffing cuts. Moss-Adams said at the time of its study, the lab had only three of its seven positions filled. Sinclair said the lab now is fully staffed, and Smigelski, who became lab supervisor about six weeks ago, is the lab’s first permanent manager after two years of interim managers.
The Moss-Adams report has at least one error. It states the lab upgrade occurred in 2006. The City Council approved a roughly $480,000 lab project that year, but the project was abandoned because of problems with how it was designed. Public works officials brought an expanded project to the council in 2009, which it approved in April of that year.
A Moss-Adams official declined to comment for this story.