A $500,000 mathematical error forced the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission to let go temporary workers and sparked questions among Charlottesville and Albemarle County staff about working with the agency, a committee has found.
Appointed by the commission to investigate its use of a $1 million federal grant, the committee produced an eight-page report that calls out the agency for “an overall lack of project management and leadership.”
The commission ordered the internal probe after learning in September that money from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant would run out seven months earlier than expected. The grant was to be used to support updates of Albemarle County and Charlottesville’s comprehensive plans, as well as a long-range transportation plan.
The ad-hoc committee the commission board formed logged more than 300 hours in its investigation, said Keith Smith, a Fluvanna County businessman appointed to the commission board and chairman of the evaluation committee.
The committee found no misuse of funds. It did find the math error, which it said was discovered in May but not addressed until July, the report said.
Commission Executive Director Stephen Williams acknowledged the error but declined to elaborate.
“I agree there was a math error,” Williams said. “I don’t think there are staffing challenges or that there will be any problem completing the project as it was scoped with the city, county and [University or Virginia].”
Others are less sure, the report said.
City and county staff have “expressed reservations about working with [the commission] in the future and question its ability to complete the project as originally intended,” Smith said.
The report included six recommendations to get the project “back on track,” but three were redacted from a copy of the document obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow. Williams was out of state Friday but said he’d seen the report. He declined to discuss the specifics of possible changes.
“I would hope that we establish some better guidelines on how the [commission] should be organized,” said commission board Chairman and Fluvanna Supervisor Joe Chesser. “It also will have us look at that executive director in a much different way than we have before.”
“We need someone who knows the planning side but also who knows how to deal with people, and has good project management skills or can find people on staff who can do that,” Chesser said.
Two people hired by the commission under the grant — project manager Summer Frederick and outreach coordinator Mandy Burbage — remain on staff with the agency. A third planner left in August to take another job.
Burbage said she generally concurred with the report’s conclusions but not necessarily its recommendations. She said she agreed the commission was not currently functioning well as an organization.
Burbage has taken another job; her last day at the commission is Monday. Frederick has been told her job ends Nov 30.
Williams said the workers he hired under the grant were made aware that their positions were contingent upon available funding.
“Sure, I think we originally estimated that we would have more hours than what actually turned out, and that was the result of a math error,” Williams said. “But we are completing all the work. It will not impact the completion of the project or the products identified in the original scope.”
Frederick said she was “not given budgetary oversight” of the project.
“I had no responsibility or awareness of the financial aspects of the project,” Frederick said. “I didn’t have any access to even see the budget.”
The project is next on the agenda of a Dec. 4 joint meeting of the Charlottesville and Albemarle planning commissions.
“To this point, it has been a very productive process,” Frederick said. “It’s unfortunate that this is what’s going on. We were really doing well and there are still good things that can come out of this.”
Chesser said Williams is looking for another job.
“In today’s world, as an executive in a government agency position, you are always looking,” Williams said. “That’s the way it is. It doesn’t indicate any particular problem on my part, or with the agency or board. It’s just the way it works.”
The commission board has appointed a steering committee to follow up on the report. That group will include Smith and Chesser.