Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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City Decision Jacked Up Cost

By Rick Outzen

On June 21, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward did not receive the $316,600 that he requested from the Escambia Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for the cleanup of the contaminated groundwater that has stalled the city’s Government Street Stormwater Pond project at Corrine Jones Park.

However, the commissioners did approve $200,000 towards the “dewatering” work by a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Doug Underhill cast the lone dissenting vote.

City Administrator Eric Olson appeared before the BCC to explain the situation.  He said that the city thought it could construct the stormwater pond near Corrine Jones Park without impacting the remediation plan for the mosquito control facility that was closed a decade ago.

“It turns out we can’t do that,” said Olson. “Further testing has revealed that, unfortunately, this is just not an exact science. All the predictions, all the assessments came in from your consultant, Cameron-Cole, used by our engineering consultant and blessed off by the DEP saying yes, those were reasonable assumptions.”

He said, “Once the contractor got in there, it turns out that this is a bigger plume, a bigger project than we had anticipated. We need the county’s help in this.”

The city administrator said the project was important for reasons other than adding stormwater storage capacity for downtown Pensacola.

“Right now, this is land that is underutilized,” said Olson.  “It’s land that exists in a historically under-served area of our community. This will provide an amenity, an amenity similar to Admiral Mason Park. “

He added, “It’s going to really be an improvement to this neighborhood. We can’t move forward on this project until we can remediate the site.”

Commissioner Grover Robinson warned the commissioners that not helping the city might send the wrong message to state officials.

“The state will be sitting on approximately $2 billion worth of additional money that they will be looking to allocate for partners,” said Robinson. “I imagine they would be looking for partners who work together for their community to make sure the matching funds happen, and those projects actually come to fruition rather than stopping it.”

Robinson added,  “I would certainly want them to know that they have somebody in Escambia County that’s willing to work together and not going to fall apart at the first sign of a problem. I think that will be critical to obtain those grants in the future in what we do.”

Commissioner Doug Underhill rejected Robinson’s argument.

“I will say that I reject outright the idea that the federal government and the BP process is so fickle that a couple of commissioners standing up and asking the due diligence questions that are associated with our constitutional offices would somehow put other monies in the future at risk,” he said. “Partnership is a mutually beneficial, mutually participatory process.”

Underhill pointed out the Government Street project is in his district, but there are other more pressing environmental remediation needs in District 2, like the American Creosote site and Omni-Vest Landfill.

“When we did the cleanup work at American Creosote we didn’t clean up the ditch (near Yacht Club and Sanders Beach) where some of the highest levels of toxins exist,” he said. “When there’s heavy run-off, those toxins actually go into the water right at the Sanders Beach Boat Ramp and the adjacent beach area.”

He said. “My people who are city residents and who are also in my district, they are my constituents, and they are swimming and playing in an area that we haven’t cleaned up yet. That makes it a priority for me.”

Underhill did not prevail in the vote, but he wanted to make a point.

“This project is not a priority for the county,” he said on “Pensacola Speaks,” just minutes after the BCC meeting adjourned. “We do have brownfields that are a risk to citizens’ livelihood and their health.”

He added, “What we end up doing in this county all too often is because we don’t have a plan, we respond to crisis, and this was brought to us saying if we don’t pony up this money right now, then we were going to have to demote the workforce, and we might lose the project.”

Underhill said, “We’ve got to get out of the business of responding to crisis and actually planning for and articulating to the citizens what our priorities are in this county.”

Commissioner Underhill pointed that City Administrator failed to point out in his presentation. Documents given to him on Monday, June 20 showed that this “crisis” was created by Mayor Hayward and his staff. The backup information revealed that the city changed the scope of the work in April of 2014.

“I’ll read it exactly: ‘4/21/14. City held an internal project kickoff meeting and decided to increase the size of the pond.’ Now, I’ll tell you just from a project manager’s point of view, if on your kickoff meeting you’re changing the scope of work, you’re probably not doing project management the right way,” said Underhill.

The original cost of the project was expected to be $2.1 million and funded by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant that Mayor Hayward announced in November 2013. The city council accepted the grant in the March 2014 and agreed to pay $22,000 towards the project as its match.

The timeline in the backup document given to the commissioners showed that NFWF approved the funding application on March 19, 2014. The city issued a design notice to Atkins Global on April 8, 2014. The county’s consultant overseeing the remediation of the old mosquito control facility, Cameron-Cole, concluded the contaminated plume from the closed facility would not adversely impact the Government Street pond. On April 16, 2014, Florida Department of Environmental Protection sent at letter to the County Brownfields Coordinator stating it agreed with the Cameron-Cole conclusions.

Then five days later, Mayor Hayward and his staff decided to increase the size of the pond. The county was not asked to have Cameron-Cole do a new environmental study.

The timeline showed for May-July 2014, “Atkins proceeded to develop conceptual plans in May based on the larger volume in order to ensure that contamination levels would be below allowable levels.”

When the city bid the project in May 2015, the contractors bidding raised concerns about the potential contamination, and the city added a line item for dewatering. The bids came back three times higher than the grant. Eventually, Utility Service Company of Gulf Breeze was awarded the work for $3 million in December 2015.

These issues were kept from the Pensacola City Council and the public. City Administrator Olson told the council last summer that the bids came back higher than expected, but didn’t mention that the city had expanded the project.

The cost of the project has ballooned to over $3 million. The additional expense has been covered by $1.1 million in BP oil spill restoration money and $113,850 from the city’s stormwater utility fee revenue.

Underhill was clearly frustrated by the lack of information coming from Pensacola City Hall.

“You might’ve found that there were better opportunities for the county to participate, maybe lower the cost,” he said, “None of that was done.”

“It’s a funny thing. It’s the difference between collaboration and cooperation. Cooperation is what you do in times of crisis; you work together to get something done. Collaboration is the work you do to lay those groundwork relationships prior to the crisis,” he added.

Underhill said, “Collaboration is what we need to be thinking about here in the community and working together from the outset of these projects, not being brought in only when it’s time to cut a check.”