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Emergency Board-ups

Report
Lack of oversight leads to contractor wrongfully charging Portlanders
Published
In this article


Executive Summary 

In late 2021, the Ombudsman received a complaint related to the Portland Police Bureau’s contract for emergency board-up services with Stanley C. Kennedy Enterprises, Inc. (doing business as 1-800 BOARDUP). As the complaint was investigated, it became clear that the issues raised were not isolated, but indicative of a wider pattern of concerning conduct by both the Contractor and the City. Specifically, the Contractor was directly billing and overcharging community members for City-initiated emergency board-up requests, in violation of its City contract, and the City was not providing sufficient oversight of the contract. This report details our investigation into the City’s management of the emergency board-up contract and the billing practices associated with it. We make recommendations for the City to hire an outside firm to conduct an audit of the Contractor; to pursue financial restitution for business owners and community members who were overcharged by the Contractor; to put procedures in place to ensure adequate oversight of the contract; and to make clear the City’s authority to initiate emergency board-up services at the expense of community members.

Background

The City uses emergency board-up services to secure properties that have experienced a break-in or vandalism when the responsible party (e.g., business owner) is unavailable or unable to secure the property themselves. When Police are dispatched to a property that is unsecured, such as a business with a broken-in door due to a burglary, the responding officer reports the need for an emergency board-up to the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) dispatch center. BOEC dispatchers attempt to contact the responsible party of the property to alert them of the break-in and the unsecured premises. If BOEC dispatchers are unable to reach the property’s responsible party, the BOEC dispatcher requests emergency board-up services from the Contractor, 1-800 BOARDUP. The emergency board-up procedures are outlined in a Police directive.1

visual representation of the process described above. colorful boxes with clip art show the process in a timeline.

Per the contract, the Contractor is required to invoice the City for all services associated with Police-initiated emergency board-ups, and the City then compensates the Contractor for services rendered. The City then bills the property’s responsible party for the board-up, plus a 15% administrative fee. When followed, this process ensures that the Contractor abides by the prices set forth in the price agreement outlined in the contract, and that neither the City nor community members are overcharged for City-initiated emergency board-ups.

Complaint Received by the Ombudsman

The Ombudsman received a complaint from the manager of a local nonprofit that experienced a break-in in late summer 2021. As a result of the break-in, the door of the nonprofit was unsecure, making it possible for people to enter unauthorized. The responding Police officer requested emergency board-up services and authorized the board-up of the door. Following the break-in and the board-up, the nonprofit received a bill from 1-800 BOARDUP for the Police-initiated services. The nonprofit contacted 1-800 BOARDUP to inquire about the amount of the bill, as they thought that it seemed excessive. According to the nonprofit,1-800 BOARDUP told them that it was cheaper for the nonprofit to pay the Contractor directly, since the City would add a 15% administrative fee prior to billing the nonprofit, should the invoice be sent to the City.


The nonprofit contacted the Auditor’s Office to complain about the bill amount and to inquire as to whether the Contractor was operating in line with their contract. The Auditor’s Office referred the complaint to the Ombudsman, one of its divisions, for review. When the nonprofit didn’t pay the invoice to the Contractor, 1-800 BOARDUP sent a notice to the nonprofit indicating that the bill would be sent to collections if unpaid. Eventually, the Contractor invoiced Police for the services and stopped invoicing the nonprofit.


Upon initial review of the situation, we found that:

  • Per the City contract, 1-800 BOARDUP is required to send all invoices for City-ordered board-ups to the City, not to the parties responsible for the affected properties.
  • The amount that 1-800 BOARDUP billed the nonprofit was greater than the invoice they subsequently sent to the City ($541.07 compared to $340.28).
  • The amount the Contractor billed the nonprofit ($541.07) was greater than the amount the City would have billed the nonprofit (a total of $391.32, including the 15% administrative fee).
  • The amount the Contractor eventually invoiced the City included materials costs that were higher than those outlined in the contract price agreement.
bar chart of invoices sent to city and community members

Based on this initial review, we decided to evaluate the extent to which the Contractor was invoicing business owners and other responsible parties directly, and not sending the invoices to the City.

Ombudsman's Review of Contractor Invoicing Practices

To determine whether the complaint we received was indicative of a larger pattern of Contractor misconduct, we analyzed City data from July 1, 2019 through December 31, 2021.We looked for discrepancies between Police-initiated emergency board-up requests and invoices sent from 1-800 BOARDUP to Police for emergency board-up services provided. According to the emergency board-up request process outlined in the Police Directive, requests for board-ups should be reflected in both BOEC dispatch call remarks and Police report records. However, we found that this was often not the case. Thus, to determine the potential scope of the problem, we examined both dispatch calls and Police report records, comparing each to the invoices that the Contractor sent to Police.

Contractor not invoicing the City for Police-initiated emergency board-ups

We found discrepancies between both (a) BOEC dispatches for emergency board-ups and Police invoices from the Contractor, and (b) Police reports indicating emergency board-up requests were made and Police invoices from the Contractor. In both instances, there were cases of Police-initiated emergency board-ups in which the Contractor provided board-up services on behalf of the City, but did not bill the City. Specifically, among BOEC dispatches, 982 calls for board-ups were not included in Contractor invoices to the City, representing 61% of the requests for emergency board-ups recorded in dispatch calls during this time. Among Police reports indicating board-up requests were made,140 cases were not included in Contractor invoices to the City, representing 39% of emergency board-up requests recorded in Police reports during this time. In total, the number of instances in which the Contractor did not invoice the City for Police-initiated board-ups likely falls somewhere between 140 to 877. To avoid double-counting, we did not include in this range 105 cases of board-ups not charged to the City that were found in both dispatch calls and Police report records.2

visual representation of emergency board up requests in percentages as described above.

A further review of Police report records from January 1 – December 31, 2022 indicate that the issue of emergency board-up requests not being invoiced to the City persisted throughout 2022. We found that just over 25% of the requests for emergency board-up services were never invoiced the City (73 out of the 285 requests).

Contractor invoicing business owners for City-initiated emergency board-ups

Based on the initial complaint we received, we suspected that the Contractor directly invoiced some of these properties. We reached out to a sample of the businesses that we identified as receiving Police-initiated emergency board-up services, but for which the City had not received an invoice. Twelve businesses that had received Police-initiated emergency board-up services between July 2019 and December 2021 stated that 1-800 BOARDUP invoiced them directly. A review of six of the itemized invoices sent to these businesses indicates that, similar to our initial complainant, the businesses were charged more than the amount allowed by the contract, and more than the amount the City was invoiced for similar services. If the amount of overcharging experienced by the initial complainant (roughly $150) was consistent across each instance of the Contractor directly billing community members, the amount overpaid by Portlanders between July 2019 and December 2021 may range from approximately $21,000 to $131,000.

the amount overcharged represented in a bar chart

Inaccurate guidance

Of note, one business owner we spoke with said that Police officers who initiated the emergency board-up request told her that she may want to conduct business with the Contractor directly, as it would be more cost-effective for her to do so. In our interviews during the initial review of the complaint, Police staff also expressed the mistaken understanding that it was more cost-effective for community members to deal with the Contractor directly. This guidance contradicts the Police Directive, which states that, after ordering board-up services, Police Bureau members will “advise the recipient that the City will bill them for services rendered.”

Gaps in City management of contract

Because the issues identified by our review of Contractor invoicing practices spanned multiple City areas, we met with representatives from relevant City offices (Police, Procurement, City Attorney, and Community Safety Division) to discuss the issues we identified and how they may be addressed. These discussions reinforced our concern about gaps in oversight, as there appeared to be a lack of clarity about who in the City was responsible for managing the contract. While the City’s manager of the contract is located within Police, responsibility for the overall administration of the contract lies with the Community Safety Division. Our concerns about the lack of authority for the City to conduct emergency board-ups were also reinforced, as stakeholders were unable to identify a source of authority in City Code for the board-ups.

Issues With Contractor Invoicing Practices and City Oversight of Contract

We found several issues of considerable concern related to the Contractor’s invoicing practices and the City’s oversight of the contract that call for attention and intervention.

Contractor’s invoicing practices

  • The Contractor (1-800 BOARDUP) was invoicing business and property owners directly for Police-initiated emergency board-up services that are required to be invoiced to the City.
  • The Contractor was invoicing business and property owners for Police-initiated emergency board-up services at a rate higher than allowed by City contract.
  • The Contractor’s invoices to the City included materials costs that were higher than the prices reflected in the current price agreement. Per the contract, changes in materials costs require amendments to the price agreement.

City's oversight of contract

  • The City did not have a system or process in place to ensure that the Contractor exclusively invoiced the City for Police-initiated requests for emergency board-ups.
  • The City and the Contractor had not completed amendments that would be required for any materials costs changes.

In addition, both the Contractor and members of the Police Bureau appeared to be erroneously advising business and property owners that it was more cost-effective to pay the Contractor directly, instead of the City, for Police-initiated emergency board-up services. Beyond the concerns of being in breach of contract, the billing practices of the Contractor, whether intentional or not, fiscally harmed community members and damaged the City’s trust with the public. Further, the practice of City-initiated emergency board-ups raises broader questions about the fairness of requiring Portlanders – in this instance, victims of property crime – to pay for services they themselves did not authorize, and it is not clear that the City has the authority to engage in this practice.3

Recommendations

Based on our findings related to City management and oversight of the contract and Contractor invoicing practices, we recommend that the City take steps to address the most pressing issues and prevent similar problems in the future.

To address concerning contractor invoicing practices, the Community Safety Division should:

  1. Provide immediate notice to the Contractor that it was found in breach of contract; that it must cease the practice of directly billing business/property owners for City-ordered board-up services; and that it must follow the procedure, as specified in the contract, of sending all invoices associated with the contract to the City for payment and at the price levels specified in the contract.
     
  2. Provide immediate guidance to all relevant City staff (including Police officers, Police accounting employees, and colleagues in the Fire Bureau who utilize the emergency board-up contract) that all business for emergency board-up services initiated by the City must be handled between the City and the Contractor.

    To review and address potential past harm, the Community Safety Division should:

  3. Hire a third-party, independent entity to conduct an audit of the Contractor, as per the contract.
    1. The audit should include, but not be limited to, identifying business and property owners invoiced directly by the Contractor for Police-initiated board-ups, for as many years as possible, but at least the past three years.4 This should include assessing how services were invoiced for the City-ordered emergency board-up requests we identified as not being invoiced to the City.
       
    2. The audit should include, but not be limited to, an examination of the Contractor’s invoices to the City and whether they complied with the terms of the contract, for as many years as possible, but at least the past three years.
       
  4. Take appropriate action based on the findings of the audit. Such action might entail fining the Contractor or terminating the contract.
     
  5. Pursue financial restitution for business and property owners overcharged by the Contractor, including but not limited to those identified by the audit.

    To prevent similar issues from occurring in the future, the Community Safety Division should:
     
  6. Develop and implement policies and procedures to provide adequate oversight of the contract, including: a system to guarantee that all requests for emergency board-up services initiated by the City are invoiced to the City; procedures to ensure that business/property owners who receive board-up services are consistently informed of the correct billing process; and a system of keeping accurate and easily tracked records of all City-initiated emergency board-up requests, to ensure that the contract can be sufficiently audited in the future.
     
  7. Initiate a new, competitive procurement for emergency board-up services.
     
  8. Consult with the Police and City Attorney to ensure that, if the city continues to initiate emergency board-up services at the expense of business/property owners, the authority is clearly described in City Code. This authority should include a requirement for the City to provide written notice of emergency board-ups to business and property owners, and an appeal process for business and property owners impacted by City-initiated emergency board-ups.

Response to the Report


Footnotes

  1. Police Directive 0631.65, Emergency Board-Up Procedure.
  2. Importantly, the lower end of the range (140 cases) is likely a conservative estimate of the scope of the problem, as Police reports showed fewer requests for emergency board-up requests than suggested by invoices received from the Contractor. For instance, Police report records show that there were 357 cases of emergency board-up requests made from July 1, 2019 through December 31, 2021. However, Police accounting received 763 invoices from the Contractor for services rendered during this time.
  3. While the City has authority to summarily abate certain “nuisances,” this is only in cases where the Director of the Bureau of Development Services or a duly authorized representative of the Director “determines that it is necessary to take immediate action” (PCC 29.20.030).Moreover, City Code does not clearly authorize the City to charge fees to abate a nuisance where a person is not first given an “opportunity to correct” the conditions. Id.
  4. Per the contract, the Contractor must maintain professional accounting standards and the City and its authorized representatives shall have access to the books, documents, papers, and records pertinent to the contract for a period of three years after final payment.

Contact

Office of the Ombudsman

City Auditor's Office