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Senate grills witnesses on Fono building and why it’s not completed

Public Works Director Faleosina Voigt, Construction Manager/ Architect Mark Lively and Chief Procurement Officer Ti'alemasunu Mikaele Etuale
ASG and Construction/ Architect Manager neglect cited by senators

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Senators vented their frustration and dissatisfaction with the amount of time it is taking to complete the construction of the new Fono building and the extra costs incurred, during a hearing of the Public Works Committee last Thursday morning.

Testifying were Public Works Director Faleosina Voigt, Chief Procurement Officer Ti'alemasunu Mikaele Etuale and Constructiom Manager/Architect Mark Lively.

In his opening remarks, Committee Chairman Senator Satele Lili'o spelled out what was expected from the three witnesses.

"The purpose of this hearing is to be updated on the status of the Fono building, to know the realistic completion date and to hear legitimate reasons for delay," Satele stated. "This project should have been completed in October, 2023 to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of the Fono. The second completion date given was April 2024, which is about a little over 60 days from now. And now I have just learned that this has also changed to some time in June or early July this year. It is my understanding that a project of this magnitude is given a completion date with penalties, which apply should that completion date not be met."

Vice chairman Senator Utu Sila Poasa stated that according to the original contract, construction would take 480 days but now, work has exceeded that number by almost four-fold.

He then asked if there was any clause in the liquidating damages that could be applied to get the project moving more quickly because it looks like the contractor is doing other projects around the island and neglecting this important government project.

"Sometimes when we come here early in the morning, we see only about three or four workers at the site," Utu said. "Our main concern is whether we will sit inside the new Fono building before our term is up."

He argued that the government offices directly involved in this project were neglecting it and not monitoring the construction more closely and putting more pressure on the contractor to speed things up.

He stated that at the beginning of the project, the total cost was $10 million, but now that number has ballooned to $26,470 million.

Utu addressed Chief Procurement Officer Ti'alemasunu Mikaele Etuale and told him it looked like he was not doing enough to solve the problem and leaving everything to the Public Works director.

Ti'alemasunu reminded senators that he had been appointed to his current position in January 2021 so he had not been involved when the contract had undergone the bidding process, the awarding of the contract to Paramount Builders Inc. and when Public Works issued the notice to proceed on September 03, 2019 with the original completion date set for September 03, 2021.

He agreed with Senator Utu that the contract was taking too much time but pointed out that the impact of COVID-19 Pandemic was one legitimate reason for the delay, which had been beyond anyone's control as PWD Director Faleosina had mentioned.

He explained that the change order requesting time extension for that particular incident had resulted in the contract sitting idle for one whole year.

The Chief Procurement Officer revealed that according to their records, there are eight change orders to date — three of them had been for time extensions and the rest were for payment of additional construction work.

The latest time extension has given the contractor, Paramount Builders Inc. until December 31, 2024 to finish the project.

He clarified that their job description was different from that of Public Works in that they deal mainly with payment of contractual services and materials needed in the construction.

Public Works Director Faleosina Voigt explained that when change orders for additional work are approved, they assess if this additional work would necessitate a change in the completion date.

She said that the completion date for the main structure of the Fono building was June 28, 2024, but the completion date for the offices within (and the whole structure), was December 31, 2024.

Voigt said that liquidated damages would be applied if the project is not completed by December 31, 2024.

Senate President Tuaolo Manaia Fruean asked if Public Works inspectors are monitoring the project because as far as he knows, there was no one from Public Works at the construction site.

He said he knows this because he has his special assistant Jim McGuire at the site everyday monitoring construction.

Voigt responded that Public Works inspector Malo has been assigned to monitor construction, sometimes if he can't make it, Ta'afua, another inspector replaces him. She also pointed out that Mark Lively's construction management local representative John Goeke is also tasked with monitoring the project.

Tuaolo pointed out that former Governor Lolo Moliga had suggested to bid construction of the Fono offices separately from the main Fono building, but it was she who recommended that the job be awarded to Paramount as well.

The Senate President continued that he signs a check of $8,000 each month for the construction management, and asked Lively what this was for. Lively said this was his billing for managing the Fono building project.

Lively, who is based in Honolulu, said he makes a trip here monthly but his representative John Goeke is overseeing the Fono project.

Senator Malaepule Saite Moliga was also blunt in his remarks.

"I couldn't care less if I never sit in an office inside this building," the Manu'a senator said. "It's not about me wanting to sit there. It's about the process and the way this project has been done. Mr. Lively and the contractor don't care less when this project will finish because they're getting paid."

He said the government has neglected this very important project and that he had never seen any government inspector on the site.

He continued that with the way things are going, he wouldn't be surprised if the final cost balloons to $50 million by the time the building is finally completed.

Senator Magalei Logovi'i expressed his concerns on the small number of Paramount Builders workers working at the Fono building everyday, which explains why the project is moving at a snail's pace.

He pointed to the new courthouse building across the road and said it’s nearly finished, and construction only started a year ago.

"When I drive past Fatu ma Futi I see more than half of the Paramount construction workers over there working on the governor's house, yet the much bigger Fono building is still not finished after nearly five years!" said an upset Magalei.

Chairman Satele Lili'o informed Senate members that due to time constraints, the hearing would continue at a later date.

Senator Togiola Tulafono asked for information to be presented by the witnesses when the hearing continues.

These include the time extensions for the construction management contract for the project noting the original contact was for 24 months, but the longer the project is delayed, the construction management will continue to bill and make money.

Chairman Satele then wrapped up the hearing by asking Mark Lively if he was involved in any other government projects to which he replied that he was involved in the Department of Education new administration building, the School Lunch Program warehouse and the new alternative school building.

Satele asked if there was a conflict of interest and if these other projects had any part in the slow progress of the Fono building project. He instructed Lively to provide an answer to that question when the hearing reconvenes and to provide documents of these projects.

The Senate Public Works Committee chairman then advised Lively and PWD Director Voigt that they should be at the project site and on call 24/7 from now on until the project is finished in order to get it moving forward.

He asked Voigt when was the last time she visited the site, and she replied that it was sometime in December.

Satele stated that he and the President's Special Assistant Jim McGuire are at the site every week and they have noticed no significant difference in construction from what they observed this past December.

Also, he stated that some of the orders for materials such as the panels won't arrive until October.

"My own personal assessment of this project is that it won't be completed this year," Senator Satele prophesied. "So please come back when this hearing resumes and tell me I'm wrong."