News 8 Investigates: La Crosse Center contractors credit city thousands of dollars for food expenses

For years, the La Crosse Center has explored a multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation project.
After multiple interviews and meetings, three companies were selected for project management services, creating concepts and designs for the project. Using city funds, they went to work. But a News 8 investigation revealed some reimbursement receipts that seemed excessive.

The city gave the La Crosse Center Board a $2 million budget to plan for the proposed changes. So far, the board has spent about 35% of that budget.

This money is being paid out of the City Surplus and La Crosse Center Room Tax Accounts. According to city officials, half of the general fund reserves are obtained directly through city resident taxes. That means that 25% of the money allocated for the center comes directly from city taxpayers. The other half comes from the room tax reserves, meaning tax money collected from people renting a hotel or motel room.

However, in an email statement , Mayor Tim Kabat said that while only a quarter of the project’s funding so far comes directly from the tax levy, the community essentially pays for all city projects.

News 8 requested all of the reimbursement invoices to date from the companies working on the project. In those bills, paid for by the city of La Crosse, were thousands of dollars in questionable restaurant, hotel and travel fees.

This is a stack of invoices starting in May of 2017 for all of the reimbursable claims from the consultants working on the La Crosse Center expansion project.

While it is common practice for city governments to pay for consultant expenses like meals and travel when planning public projects, questionable details began to appear in July of 2017.

Line items show a $500 team dinner at the Waterfront Restaurant, a $200 team dinner at Love Child, a $450 team dinner at the Waterfront Restaurant, a $180 team dinner at The Mint, a $300 team dinner at Kate’s Pizza Amore, a $197 dinner for one person. That same person claimed $445 in meals over three days.

These reimbursement claims were made by ISG and its subcontractor, Gensler, the companies hired by the city to design potential renovations to the La Crosse Center.

News 8 brought questions about these charges to the mayor, who said he was unaware of these details.

“That is on the La Crosse Center Board to be looking at those and really scrutinizing what we’re paying,” said Tim Kabat, mayor of the city of La Crosse.

Brent Smith said the board was aware of those charges.

“Some of the bills we saw for things like meals, hotels, different things that we said, ‘We’re not going to pay or that we wanted to be at a reduced rate,'” said Smith, president of the La Crosse Center Board.

Smith and Art Fahey, the director of the center, said they did negotiate down the prices with ISG and Gensler.

“Some of those things that they had on there, we challenged. They took them off the invoice because they agreed with us. We wanted them to make sure they understood we’re watching this very closely,” Fahey said.

The La Crosse Center Board was also concerned about other charges for things like hotel rooms.

“These are not normal and customary. You know, let us negotiate it, and we’ll have the opportunity to go out and get our own hotel rooms for them,” Fahey said.

But a News 8 investigation found even after the board’s efforts, there were still questionable charges. Smith contacted ISG, which offered a solution.

“ISG advanced this proposal saying, ‘Hey, can we credit this back while we look into it?'” said Lynn Bruns, executive vice president for ISG.

The contractor is issuing a $4,439.57 credit for the meal expenses, not because of how much was spent, but because these charges lacked detail. The company plans to provide more detail in its reimbursement requests in the future.

“Call it the plan to address activities in the past plus the heightened due diligence on it moving forward,” Bruns said.

Smith said this is one of the lessons the La Crosse Center Board learned from this investigation.

“What this process has shown to me is that people who do work for any governmental entity, whether it be the city or governmental entity, should give more detail,” Smith said.

That includes clarification on how many people were at group meals, saying some charges could be for 10 or more people.

“Then I think it’s fair to say that the government officials who review those bills should ask questions if they don’t have that detail,” Smith said.

Looking at the contract for ISG and Gensler on the city’s website, part of the document did allow for reimbursement of transportation, authorized travel and things like meals. City and La Crosse Center Board officials said the contracts are below the agreed-upon budget for that, but they did not cite a specific number.

News 8 requested an interview with the mayor to see if there would be any changes in city policy. He was not available for comment.

However, in an email, Kabat said, “‘It is standard for architectural and engineering contracts to have a budgeted dollar amount for travel and meals. Gensler and ISG are still well below the total amount budgeted for travel and meals.”

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