For at least the past five years, vendors doing business with the Town of Amherst have had trouble getting paid.
As a result, some vendors have refused to do business with the largest suburb in Erie County, which drove up the costs for items the town needed.
For example, a truck that the highway department needed for snow removal sat idle for months because Kenworth, the vendor, refused to work on the vehicle. One company held plow trucks in captivity until the invoice got paid. And the town’s highway superintendent could not find more than one contractor to bid on the administrative building’s roof, which leaks when it rains.
“All I know is that we have certain vendors who used to work with the town in the past who have told us they don’t want to do business with us anymore,” said Patrick Lucey, the Town of Amherst’s Highway Superintendent.
“I think it’s costing the town overall more money,” Lucey said.
How did this happen?
Brian Kulpa, the Town of Amherst supervisor, says the root of the problem lies in a 17-year legal fight with a roofer who, in 2002, fell from a ladder and broke his neck while inspecting a roof at the St. Mary of the Angels Motherhouse in Amherst State Park. The roofer won a $19.6 million award in court, which required the town to have to borrow more than $13 million to cover the judgment.
“It was a problem for the town,” Kulpa said.
“The town regrouped and put together a very stiff sort of sets of rules by which somebody could work within the town. So, we require contracts for a lot of our work.”
Those contracts come with clauses that vendors said they’ve never seen before. If the vendor’s invoice is missing any of required documentation, the town will send it back unpaid.
As a result, Kulpa said he has received at least 20 vendor complaints, and has made it a priority to fix the problem.
But the supervisor had a message for any vendor who might complain about the changes: “If we want that information, we’re going to ask for that information. If you can’t comply to it, don’t respond.”
“There are some vendors who can’t meet the town insurance requirements,” Kulpa said.
“We’re a big town with a lot of money at stake. So, not every vendor is going to want to or be able to work with us.”
Vendor criticizes town
Lucey, the town’s highway superintendent, uses a bucket to collect the rain water that leaks from the rundown roof on the administrative offices.
Something as simple as replacing a roof became increasingly difficult for the town to do.
“When we put out the bid nobody would bid on the contract at all,” Lucey said.
“Couldn’t get anybody to do a roof here. The second time we put out a bid we had one vendor who bid on it and we thought that it was an excessively high price.”
The town discarded the bid and the project has been on hold for months through the winter.
“A few of the people told my general foreman that they weren’t interested in doing the job, that the polices in place to work for the town were just too excessive. It definitely effects the bottom line,” Lucey said.
Lucey said some of the smaller vendors aren’t set up to provide the type of documentation that the town wants. Information such as prevailing wage, for how much a company is insured, which employees worked on a vehicle so that they can detect an overcharge and list prices for products so officials can pick the best discounts.
Rich Wainwright, regional sales manager for Viking Cives, a manufacture of snow-removal equipment, said the company does business in three countries and has served the town for more than 20 years. But the past five years have been rough with the town, he told Amherst Town Board members during its April 16, 2018, meeting.
“This bothers me not only as a vendor but as a taxpayer residing in the Town of Amherst,” Wainwright said at the meeting.
Wainwright said at the April board meeting that he provided the town with all documentation. He checked off each item attached to the invoice. But he still had not been paid.
“So, not only for myself, but for other vendors who are in the same boat as my company is, I’m begging the town board to find the root of the problem and please start paying the bills,” Wainwright said.
Since airing his concerns at the town board meeting, the town has paid the invoice.
Kulpa said the town is committed to fixing these problems.
Fixing the problem
Kulpa said he has hired a new director of finance this year.
They are writing new policy and developing some of their own contracts instead of piggybacking of county contracts.
But it won’t be done overnight, he said.
“We’re dealing with taxpayer money,” Kulpa said.
“We can’t just pay out unless they’re complying with what we require them to do.”
Kulpa believes the new process will hold “bad vendors” accountable, but at the same time, “do what’s right with good vendors.”
The changes are unlikely to please everyone, Kulpa said.
“However, asking somebody who signs a contract to make sure they’re accounting system and accounting software can fulfill the promises they made in that contract, that’s also something that’s a big deal for us and if you can’t, then don’t bid the work,” he said.
As for the truck that sat idle for months, Lucey said his department submitted a resolution to the Town Board to authorize the comptroller to issue the check to the vendor, Kenworth. They got paid, and the truck got fixed.
What about the leaking roof at the highway superintendent’s administrative offices?
Lucey said he is still trying to find a vendor.
“We are looking to have a metal roof installed since no one really wanted to bid on replacing the asphalt shingles that currently exist,” he said.