Two audit reports released this week by Legislative Auditor Daryl Pupera’s office focus on documentation of expenses related to hurricane recovery and costs incurred by the state for vacant office space in downtown New Orleans as part of a costly incentive package to induce Saints owner Tom Benson to keep the NFL team in New Orleans
The first indicates that the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) has invoices for more than $49 million in exceptions, or undocumented expenses by disaster recovery specialists in the perpetual recovery efforts of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike.
The other, which we first wrote about in February of 2013, smacks of the kind of political back scratching for which Louisiana has become famous: the state’s capitulation to New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson as part of a costly incentive package to induce him to keep his team in New Orleans. Part of that package included the state’s leasing of office space in his Benson Towers office building at inflated rental rates, a deal that appears to border on financial irresponsibility.
The report says that auditors evaluated 4,476 expense reimbursements totaling $711 million submitted by disaster recovery “specialists,” and found 665 “exceptions” totaling nearly $49.6 million.
Pupera explained that the questioned expenses do not necessarily indicate fraud or mismanagement but rather a need for more thorough documentation and justification for the invoices. “The money has been allocated but because it’s federal money, we want to be sure that all invoices are adequately justified before they are paid so we won’t have the feds coming back later and asking for their money back,” he said.
He said the exceptions fall into five different categories: contract work ($42.56 million), force account labor ($3.8 million), force account equipment ($1.3 million), materials ($1.8 million) and rented equipment ($88,000).
Other questionable costs included:
Expense reimbursements of $6.6 million which exceeded cost estimates;
Expense reimbursements of $22.7 million not supported by invoices, receipts, lease agreements, contracts, time records, equipment logs, inventory records of other documentation;
Purchases and contracts totaling $11.6 million which did not comply with federal and state procurement requirements;
Expense reimbursements of $11.6 million which did not comply with federal and state procurement requirements;
Expenses of $2.1 million in work which did not comply with FEMA regulations and guidelines;
Duplicate, omitted and/or miscategorized expenses of $5.7 million.
Pupera said once issues raised by auditors are addressed by GOHSEP, most of the expenses will be properly documented for payment. “There may still be some exceptions at the end, but a large majority are expected to be justified,” he said.
Benson purchased the 26-story Dominion Tower in September of 2009 and re-named it Benson Tower. He made the purchase after entering into a generous—to Benson—agreement whereby the state gave away the store to keep the Saints from moving to San Antonio.
One of the stipulations, which expired a couple of years ago, called for visiting teams’ players, coaches, and support staff to pay state income taxes on one-sixteenth on their annual salaries (because they played one of their 16 regular season games in New Orleans, thus earning a 16th of their income in the state). Once that money was received by the Louisiana Department of Revenue, the department immediately issued a check for an identical amount payable to Benson.
Another obligates the state to pay Benson a cool $1 million whenever the NFL awards a Super Bowl to New Orleans.
Benson Tower is located across the street from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. As part of the deal struck between Benson and the state, the Jindal administration agreed to a 20-year lease of some 325,000 square feet of office space at $24 a square foot for various state agencies, some of whom were paying as little as $12 a square foot before being forced to move to Benson Tower in 2011.
At the outset, the state’s obligation was about $7 million a year, $2.4 million more than the $4.6 million the state was paying before the move.
Included in the Benson Tower purchase was a 60,000-square-foot plot encompassing a one-block section of LaSalle Street and part of what once was the New Orleans Centre shopping mall. That facility is now known as Champions Square where Saints tailgate parties are held. Anheuser Busch, makers of Budweiser Beer, has exclusive rights for beer concessions at Champions Square after striking a deal with the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED), also known as the Superdome Commission.
Benson, the seven LSED members (each of whom is appointed by the governor) and their families, businesses and business associates, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome management firm, and Anheuser-Busch distributor Southern Eagle Sales & Service combined to contribute more than $203,000 to Jindal campaigns between 2003 and 2012.
Prior to the Benson Tower deal, the average cost per square foot for state agencies leasing office space in New Orleans was $17.66. In 2012, the first full lease year in Benson Tower, the cost per square foot was $23.78. Rent at the building is tied to the consumer price index and today the cost per square foot is $25.10.
The Louisiana Attorney General’s offices were never relocated to Benson Tower because of a lack of 24-hour access to parking facilities.
The $7.4 million now being paid does not include $625,000 being paid by the state for 24,900 square feet of vacant office space in the building. That amount bumps the state’s annual rent up to $8 million per year.
The audit report said a survey of current listing information on available office space in New Orleans, the range for lease rates is $16 to $22 per square foot, including parking, or an average of $19 per square foot.
Accordingly, for the 347,849 square feet of Benson Tower, including the 24,872 of vacant office space, the state is paying an average of almost $2.1 million per year in excess rent to Benson.
And the state is locked in until 2025—an additional payment in excessive rent of at least $23 million during the remaining life of the agreement, although the lease agreement could be extended beyond 2025, according to Mark Moses, director of the State Office of Facility Planning and Control.
In his response to the audit, Moses said the Saints were “an import part of Louisiana’s culture as well as an economic driver for New Orleans and the rest of the state.”
He said the incentive package delivered to Benson with appropriate wrapping and bows “saved the state more than $280 million in addition to adding nearly $400 million in revenue expected to be generated over the life of the agreement.”
Moses also said the number of parking spaces included in the lease rate should be included with comparing Benson Tower rental rates with market rates in New Orleans.
“Commercial Class A buildings typically include one to two parking spaces per 1,000 square feet under lease,” he said. “Based on the approximate 323,000 square feet of space under lease (the auditor’s office gives the area as 348,000), the standard commercial lease rate would include between 323 and 646 parking spaces. The rental rate for Benson Tower, however, includes 900 parking spaces in the Superdome garages.”
He added that additional parking is also available for $50 per month in the state-owned Health Education Authority of Louisiana (HEAL) garage a block from Benson Tower.
Moses also pointed out that the audit report’s comparisons of market rates failed to mention that most commercial leases of Class A buildings including “pass through language,” which requires tenants to pay a proportionate share of operations and maintenance expenses that exceed base year expenses established in the lease. Pass through rates, he said, can vary depending on operating and maintenance expenses for individual buildings and according to occupancy rates. Benson Tower, he said , does not include pass through language in its lease with the state.