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Sunday April 20th 2014

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Lowball Logjam


Are There Riches in the River?
By Jeremy Morrison

If something seems too good to be true, maybe it is. Or, maybe there’s treasure under the water.

“I don’t think it’s a gold mine, but …” Vince Whibbs, Jr. explained. “We know that there’s some cypress, some juniper and there’s some pine …”

For years, a logjam has grown on the Escambia River, in the north of the county near McDavid. The Escambia County Commission recently contracted Whibbs’ company to clear the jam and remove derelict vessels from the river. The price was right. Maybe.

“I know we got a great deal,” said Commissioner Grover Robinson during a February meeting, “but I just wanna make sure we’re gonna be able to get that done.”

Betting on the Low Bid

Escambia County received three bids for the logjam job. Whibbs’ company—Florida Forest Recyclers, LLC—was the lowest by far.

County staff recommended commissioners go with the low bid. Interim County Administrator George Touart expressed his reservations when the issue landed on the commissioners’ table.

“My concern is, we took three bids and discrepancy in price is unbelievable, so we’ve asked legal to look at it and they have come back to us and said you can go ahead and award this project,” Touart told the commissioners.

Florida Forest Recyclers bid the job at $68,498. Crowder Gulf Joint Venture, Inc., a company based in Theodore, Ala., made a bid of $572,000. DRC Emergency Services, LLC, out of Mobile, bid $792,622.44

“There’s obviously a huge discrepancy in bids,” Commissioner Steven Barry told the board. “My understanding for the reason for that is that this is really going to be some start-up money, some seed money to get the project begun, because once the boats come out of the way, evidently there is quite a bit of tangible value to a considerable amount of that wood that is in the logjam.”

Dreaming of Debris Dollars

During a late February town hall in Barry’s district, Whibbs explained his intentions. He said his company was better positioned to complete the job and already had the permits in place.

Whibbs—who in a former life was a prominent local attorney and one-time candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives—launched Florida Forest Recyclers with his partners after a stint in prison following his disbarment and convictions on theft, fraud and racketeering charges. The company has been singularly focused.

“It was basically formed for the specific purpose of working and removing the logjam,” Whibbs explained at Barry’s town hall.

When he looks at the Escambia River logjam, Whibbs doesn’t see a one-dimensional debris-removal job or a navigational hazard. He sees a potential bounty in the logs, some perhaps left over from logging operations of yore.

“We think there’s between 1,500 and 2,000 logs in there,” Whibbs explained later. “Different sizes and stuff, along with woody debris.”

Insofar as the bid goes, Whibbs said his competitors weren’t factoring in the profit potential of the wood.

“[The other companies] had no use for the wood itself,” he said. “Their bids were based on that.”

Whibbs is confident his crew—three people will work the site—can clear the jam within the parameters of the county contract and do it for the price quoted. They’ve got 180 days—“we hope we can do it in less time than that”—but won’t begin until the river’s water level drops and Gulf Sturgeon spawning season has ended.

Escambia County officials sound hopeful they’re getting a good deal. They also don’t sound completely convinced.

Touart stressed to commissioners that he was “very concerned.” He said the county will “hold their feet to the fire for this money,” and that there would be no change-orders—allowing the price to balloon once work started—unless they were made for unforeseen aspects of the job—“but logs underneath the water for a profit ain’t one of ‘em.”

“I’ve never seen a bid come in this far apart and recommended for award,” Touart told the commissioners. “I’ve never heard—and I’m not in the business—I’ve never heard that there’s profit underneath the water in this river, but so be it if that’s the case.”