Allegheny County out $1 million in state money for public works projects

| Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Allegheny County lost out on more than $1 million in state money for two public works projects because the county began construction before PennDOT gave final approval, officials confirmed Tuesday.

The mistakes date to 2009 and 2010 when the county gave contractors the go-ahead on a Squirrel Hill road project and a Bellevue bridge project, respectively.

Any county money spent before PennDOT's final approval is not eligible for reimbursement, said Amie Downs, spokeswoman for county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who took office in January.

County Manager William McKain declined to say if that's why Fitzgerald fired Public Works Director Joe Olczak, 64, of Ross, two weeks ago. Fitzgerald also won't say why Olczak was fired.

Reached at home, Olczak referred most questions to the county but said a county construction manager would have been in charge of the approval process.

PennDOT spokesman Jim Struzzi said the county requested that PennDOT reconsider its decision, but the agency cannot because of federal rules that apply. Most of the money comes to the agency from the federal government.

“This is not a common problem, and it is our understanding the county has put in place checks and balances in their process to avoid this issue in the future,” he said.

McKain said he reviewed financial records from several departments once he was hired in July and discovered the county failed to get the $1 million.

“It's unacceptable that we didn't have systems in place to obtain all the money that this county is entitled to, and I hold people responsible for that,” McKain said.

McKain declined to name who is responsible, other than to say “poor judgments and decisions were made” in the Public Works Department.

McKain said he instituted a plan to better coordinate the work of all divisions in the Public Works Department. The plan better defines duties, aims to improve communication within the department and calls for regular meetings with PennDOT, he said. Public Works officials are to meet monthly among themselves to share information about the status of projects and reimbursements received or outstanding.

The Browns Hill intersection improvement project involved work on Beechwood Boulevard from Forward Avenue to Hazelwood Avenue. Construction costs from August through September 2009 totaling $326,580, were not reimbursed, although the state paid the county $2.1 million for work done from October 2009 through June 2011, when the project was completed.

The state did not reimburse the county $688,000 for inspections conducted on the Jack's Run Bridge, which connects California Avenue in the city to Lincoln Avenue in Bellevue, during a 10-month period in 2010. PennDOT did reimburse the county $9.45 million for the Jack's Run project, which was completed in November 2011.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or

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