City of Scottsdale staff failed for years to follow up on recommendations from the Arizona Department of Transportation to inspect or repair its bridges — including the Drinkwater Bridge that recently underwent $9 million worth of repairs.
A June report from the Scottsdale City Auditor found the city lacked procedures to follow up on recommended repairs to city bridges and did not have an accurate or updated inventory on all bridges in the city.
The auditor found that the city failed for years to follow up on repairs recommendations from ADOT, which inspects many city bridges on a yearly basis.
Calling the situation “a complete lapse,” Mayor Jim Lane said he found the audit results surprising and concerning.
“ADOT does their inspections…and we need to respond to that, and for several years we’ve found that that wasn’t happening,” Lane said.
The audit noted that ADOT had been warning the city about Drinkwater Bridge for a decade.
“ADOT inspection reports noted evidence of water leaking, concrete spalling, and broken light fixtures at the Drinkwater bridge for more than 10 years,” according to the report. “Yet city staff did not initiate additional assessments until after public complaints of lighting outages for the boulevard under the bridge.”
Despite those advanced warnings, the City Council had pull funding from other projects in late 2018 to provide millions of dollars in emergency funding for repairs that are scheduled to be completed this fall.
Lane said had the city known investigated the issues sooner, it could have planned for funding within the budget.
Dan Worth, Scottsdale’s Public Works executive director, said city staff had taken action in recent years to mitigate issues at Drinkwater Bridge, including shutting down a fountain that was leaking on top of the bridge and hiring a contractor to inspect the severity of concrete issues pointed out by ADOT.
Worth said that investigation revealed the problem “was worse than it appeared from the surface.”
“So that was the point in time where we decided we needed to do what was prudent to protect the public and close that down and do the bridge replacement,” Worth said.
Reaction time slow
The audit raises questions about how quickly Public Works acted to address the problem, stating ADOT had noticed evidence of deterioration going back over a decade.
Street Operations, the Public Works division responsible for bridges, requested a structural investigation of the bridge in 2014 after public complaints, according to the audit.
“However, no repairs or additional review was initiated until December 2016, following complaints about falling concrete under the bridge,” according to the audit.
Worth, speaking generally about staff’s failure to address ADOT recommendations, acknowledged that staff did not have a standardized process in place to follow up on repairs and vowed to fix that issue.
It is unclear if quicker action could have mitigated the costs incurred by the city replace the bridge.
Mayor Lane said Drinkwater Bridge was three decades old and would have likely needed some sort of repairs in the near future but “it might have taken less work if we got to it sooner.”
ADOT inspects 231 qualified bridges and culverts in Scottsdale and provides yearly inspection reports to the city.
Worth said that half of the bridges in the report did not have recommended repairs.
Still, the auditor found that many of the recommendations in those reports were not acted on.
“Inspections of City bridges have not been consistently monitored and recommended repairs have not been completed,” according to the auditor’s Infrastructure Condition Assessment.
The audit also found that city staff failed to update inventories to notify ADOT of new bridges.
The audit also found that the city has not addressed maintenance issues with all of its parking garages and needs to put a testing and maintained program in place for other assets, like sidewalks, parking lots and streetlamps.
Since 2012, ADOT has made 16 repair and 284 maintenance recommendations related to bridges to the city.
In that time, the Street Operations Department, the division of public works responsible for bridge upkeep, filed 96 work orders related to those suggestions but the auditor found only 19 of those work orders — 20 percent — had been completed.
Worth said more repairs were actually completed than is reflected in the audit but that the work was not documented in work orders.
Worth said his department did not have process in place to follow up on recommendations and ensure work was completed.
“The one finding, that we didn’t seem to have a systematic process in place for doing that evaluation and establishing work orders and getting the repairs done for those situations where we needed to do, I think there’s some accuracy to that,” Worth said.
Staff turnover blamed
Worth blamed staff turnover for the issue.
“And that’s one of the things didn’t really get followed through on the turnover of a couple of key positions, so we’re working out a way to reestablish that.”
Worth did not specify when that turnover took place, but the audit stated that the department had not consistently followed up on ADOT recommendations for the past seven years.
Worth committed to implementing processes to correct the reporting issues and ensure staff follows up on recommended repairs.
“That’s not going to happen anymore, because we’ve established better system for work orders,” Worth said.
According to the audit, Worth agreed to all of the auditor’s recommendations, including the implementation of procedures to ensure bridge maintenance is conducted and followed up on.
The City Manager’s office offered vague assurances that it will monitor the situation.
“The City Manager will hold his employees accountable for implementing the Management Action Plan contained on pages 19-20 of the audit report,” according to a statement provided by Corsette.
Despite acknowledging a failure of process, Worth said he does not believe the audit uncovered any issue that posed an immediate risk to public safety.
“We’re very confident that (the audit) didn’t uncover anything that we’ve been missing that poses any kind of a risk to the public,” Worth said.
The audit did find that ADOT had rated the 68th Street Bridge in downtown Scottsdale and three other bridges as structurally deficient since 2014.
According to the audit, structurally deficient “does not mean the bridge is unsafe, but it signifies that one or more components need to be closely monitored or rehabilitation is needed.”
Worth pointed out that the city acted quickly on a 2018 ADOT inspection that recommended repairs to the 68th Street Bridge, which showed signs of water damage from the canal that runs beneath it.
Previous ADOT inspections did not look at the underside of the bridge because the canal levels were too high, Worth said.
The City Council voted to provide emergency funding for those repairs at the same meeting at which it funded Drinkwater Bridge in late 2018.
Citing the 68th Street Bridge, Worth said he is confident his department is catching issues before they become a danger.
Responsible parties hard to find
“My take is we capture the most important ones; we’re going through and catching the most high priority ones,” Worth said.
The audit calls that into question.
With the exception of the 68th Bridge — which reopened in May after a 15-month closure — “There is no evidence Public Works has taken any steps to further evaluate the structural integrity of these bridges or to apply the ADOT-recommended treatments,” according to the audit.
If city officials held someone responsible for the deficiencies pointed out in the audit, they are not talking.
City Manager Jim Thompson’s office denied multiple interview requests for this story but did provide a brief email response via a city spokesperson.
“The city does not discuss personnel matters of this nature,” read a response from City Spokesman Kelly Corsette when asked if any city staff were reprimanded due to the results of the audit.
The City Manager deferred most questions regarding the audit’s conclusions, bridge repair issues and failure to respond to ADOT recommendations to Worth.
The audit also specifically cites the Street Operations division of Public Works as the division that failed to follow up on ADOT recommendations.
Former Street Operations Director Randy Ghezzi is no longer employed by the city. Ghezzi was hired by the City in July 2014, left in 2016 and was rehired in 2017.
It is unclear whether or not the audit had anything to do with Ghezzi’s departure.
Corsette, the city spokesman, provided a statement from the City Manager stating that “Mr. Ghezzi voluntarily resigned from his job at the city,” though a high-ranking city official previously told the Progress that Ghezzi was fired.
A post on Ghezzi’s Facebook page indicates he left the city in late June, just weeks after the audit was presented to the City Council on June 14.
Ghezzi was previously the subject of an outside investigation commissioned by the city in 2018 following allegations that he worked at an area Lowe’s without receiving city permission and that he received improper gifts from city contractors.
The investigation found evidence to sustain some of the allegations and Ghezzi served a 40-hour suspension and saw his pay docked by one percent.
Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield, chair of the City Council’s Audit Subcommittee, said the Council requests audits to fix problems and not to assign blame.
“It’s not ‘Let’s throw stones at anybody;’ It’s ‘Let’s fix the problem,’” she said.
Littlefield said she is comfortable with the auditor’s recommendations and confident staff will follow through.
“Then we’ll go back and make sure that this is done,” Littlefield said, referring to the audit subcommittee.