The Fresno County Zoo Authority voted to release more than $2 million to the African Adventure exhibit contractor that had been held up by Fresno Chaffee Zoo Corp., which said it was awaiting completion of certain projects.
The 6-0 approval Wednesday comes on the heels of Fresno Chaffee Zoo Corp.’s agreement last week to settle the lingering financial dispute with contractor Harris Construction over the company’s work on the exhibit, which opened 14 months ago.
The amount in dispute was about $2.16 million – 5 percent of the roughly $43 million construction bill. Harris claimed that the withheld money was keeping its subcontractors from being fully paid for their work.
But zoo corporation officials contended the project wasn’t finished, although they declined to disclose the work remaining other than to say none of it affected health or safety.
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Last week following a closed session, zoo corporation board President John Valentino gave a brief statement acknowledging the board’s approval of a “settlement agreement, which was borne out of mediation.”
The terms were not announced, other than that the withheld money would be released. A letter to zoo officials from Seattle-based Portico Group, the project’s architect, said Harris will remain responsible for work required under warranty.
Paul Toste, a zoo authority board member, questioned a “confidential agreement” reached by the zoo corporation and Harris Construction. The agreement, he said, should be made public.
“There is a document that is in existence that resolves any issue related to this project and this board needs to be informed about this document before this decision is made,” said Toste, who abstained in the vote. “We got a bunch of letters, it’s public information there’s contention between the contractor and the zoo.”
This board needs to be informed about this document before this decision is made.
Paul Toste, zoo authority board member
He said the authority needs to know about items addressed in the confidential agreement between Harris Construction and the zoo corporation.
It isn’t clear if the zoo corporation is legally required to provide the authority with the document, but the authority can request it, said Jane T. Smith, deputy county counsel, representing the authority.
Other authority members were comfortable with assurances from zoo and zoo corporation officials.
The funds had been authorized in the contract but were being retained until the work was completed, said Gerald Lyles, a zoo authority member.
“It’s not that this is a slush fund paying for contingencies,” Lyles said. “It is a percentage of each approved payment for work that was authorized by the zoo authority.”
Authority board member Peter Herzog said the issues are between Fresno Chaffee Zoo Corp. and Harris Construction.
“It’s almost overstepping. We’re treading into their business,” he said. “This is work that’s been done since Day One. … I don’t need to see (the agreement).”
The zoo corporation and Harris officials held a mediation session two weeks ago and reached an accord.
Harris claimed the retention money should have been paid by the end of March; the two sides exchanged letters until October before agreeing to a mediation process.
It’s not that this is a slush fund paying for contingencies. It is a percentage of each approved payment for work that was authorized by the zoo authority.
Gerald Lyles, zoo authority board member
In a joint statement from Harris Construction and the zoo corporation board, both sides acknowledged that they “encountered a few obstacles on the project, a situation not uncommon on large and complex projects.”
In an October letter to zoo officials, David Parkes, Harris president and CEO, said the company had many subcontractors who hadn’t been fully paid.
Valentino said at the time that the zoo corporation wouldn’t part with the money until it knew the work had been done and other issues addressed. At the same time, he noted that African Adventure costs came in as budgeted and “we are generally pleased with the outcome.”
African Adventure opened in October 2015, a major expansion of the zoo that has helped draw crowds. More than 1 million people have visited the zoo since then.