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Jeannette urged to give back $65K grant

| Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 12:13 a.m.

The attorney for the City of Jeannette recommended Tuesday that the city return a $65,000 state grant earmarked for a recreation center, submit a new proposal to the state and hope the state will award Jeannette another grant in the future for the long-delayed project.

“Return the $65,000 and go back to the drawing board,” said Scott Avolio.

One problem, Avolio added, is the financially-strapped city doesn't have the money to repay the state, although the municipiality is on the hook for the grant.

The city recreation commission voted Tuesday to ask contractor Tim Bongiorni, president of the now-closed Quality Sheet Metal Erection in Avella, Washington County, to return the money although Avolio warned that Bongiorni is “within his legal rights” if he doesn't return the full amount.

Neither the commission nor city council ever contacted Bongiorni since the contract was signed in 2008 to inform him what their plans were for the building and when they would come up with the balance of the down payment.

The grant was awarded to the commission in 2007 but turned over to the city, Avolio said.

“The city has been put in a bad situation,” he added. “In 2007, the dream and hopes may have been great but not in 2013. It was a $1.5 million dream.”

Neither the city nor the commission has the money to build the center or operate the enterprise.

Jeannette is in the process of trying to raise revenue to pay a $350,000 contribution to the police pension fund and has laid off employees, required administrators to take a 10 percent reduction in their salaries, will refinance a bond issue and sell assets. It began the year with a $500,000 deficit.

Avolio has been investigating why the city or commission never followed up with Bongiorni after he was given a $65,000 deposit on the building. The complete project would have cost the city $1.5 million but after the deposit was paid, nothing else was ever done to make the remaining $20,000 down payment, Avolio said. A fundraising committee tasked with coming up with donations “melted away” and the project stalled.

“It just abruptly stopped at the beginning of 2008,” he added.

The project resurfaced when commission members Randy Highlands and Joe Yorio began questioning what happened to the money.

Highlands was upset when he learned that Avolio had found a copy of the contract that was signed June 28, 2008, with Quality Sheet Metal Erection.

“I've been asking, asking, and asking and asking,” Highlands said. “I didn't know until tonight that a contract existed.”

Yorio questioned the accuracy of past meeting minutes, which did not contain his demands to see documents associated with the project.

Avolio said the city never attempted to contact Bongiorni for four years. There is enough blame to go around on both sides, he added.

“To say where is my $65,000 is a gross inaccuracy,” he continued. “I can't explain why no one, after 4 years, asked where's my $20,000?”

Bongiorni has told officials he would work with the city to complete the project but would have a difficult time providing the type of building they want for $65,000. The price, he said, has increased and the city would incur additional costs for excavating the site and completing the interior of the building.

Bongiorni cashed the check but Avolio said he doesn't know what happened to the money after that. Bongiorni said he paid the money to a company in Somerset County to provide the structure but couldn't remember the name of the firm or the salesman he dealt with.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reachedat 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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