Whose idea was THAT!?

Hear no evil see no evil speak no evil post no evil


Last Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 the City Council heard oral presentations from four engineering firms that each wanted to be named the City’s Engineering Consultant for Water, Wastewater and Reclaimed Water Services.  A lot of money is involved and our very own Quentin L Hampton is among the four firms vying for this continuing contract.  According to their website, QLH has designed and overseen all of Port Orange’s water and sewer projects for the last thirty years.

Also this past Wednesday afternoon the City Council approved an Additional Work Authorization for QLH to redesign a filtration and aeration project at the Reclaim Lakes area off Shunz Rd.  This redesigned project, if it can be completed within 18 months and it works as planned, should get the Florida Department of Environmental Protection off our backs.  FDEP currently enjoys their seat on our backs because some previous designs and construction projects involving reclaimed water have failed.  (Did I mention that QLH has designed and overseen all of Port Orange’s reclaimed water systems?)  QLH is asking approximately $50,000.00 for the design phase of the current work; and, all charges for the administration and inspection phases of the work will be in addition to that amount.
While requests from citizens and councilmen alike for an historical cost analysis of the whole Reclaim Water Augmentation System periodically get voiced, we’ll probably never know the true cost.  The City’s own June, 2013 Reclaim Water Status Report recommended contracting with an independent engineering firm to get a “peer review that ensures complete objectivity and transparency.”  What we got in January, 2014 was a PEER review that was so superficial as to be useless.  Seems that after a while people just give up asking questions and all that’s left is the sound of dirt being swept under the rug.
When we first started looking into the Halifax Paving dirt deal we found out a lot about how the City of Port Orange functioned back in the good old days when it was running like a “fine Swiss watch.”  The dirt mess started out innocently enough with a simple contract with Halifax to buy excess fill material from the City.  They were high bidder and agreed to buy 500,000 cubic yards of dirt excavated by another contractor from Lake B at the Reclaim Water Reservoir.  Price was $2.10 per cubic yard.  Quentin L Hampton had designed the Reclaim Lake project and was overseeing construction.
As long as Halifax stuck to loading trucks with dirt and QLH stuck to counting them, things ran smoothly.  Unfortunately, someone got the bright idea early on to modify Halifax’s contract from dirt hauling to lake construction.  A Change Order was written for Halifax to build Lake A, competitive bidding was waived, the City Council rubber-stamped it as an item on the Consent Agenda, and we ended up with a BARTER agreement whereby Halifax got paid in dirt for construction of the lake.  So, whose idea was THAT?  “Will work for dirt” sounds like something you’d see on a homeless person’s sign, not the basis for a multi-million dollar contract.  The fact that no real money changed hands probably contributed to the erratic record-keeping and “handshake” agreements that went on for the next nine years.
The City Council was kept on a “need to know” basis and all they needed to know was to vote “yes” on Consent Agenda items.  In 2006 Halifax was twice “approved” to haul and pay for more dirt from City stockpiles to the tune of $210,000.00 and $105,000.00, respectively.  QLH conferred with City staff but Council doesn’t even appear to have been informed and the contract was never modified—(the approvals didn’t even make it to the Consent Agenda.)  While pulling dirt from City stockpiles, Halifax was not working on Lake A and in 2007, with the deadline for completion nearing, Change Order #2 was passed granting them a one year time extension—(Consent Agenda item.)  In 2008, with another deadline for completion nearing, Change Order #3 was passed granting them a two year extension—(another Consent Agenda item.)  Also included in Change Order #3 were provisions for deepening the lake, for splitting excavated dirt between Halifax and the City, and for granting incentives upon early completion.  Council was told there were also to be penalties for late completion but the penalties somehow never made it into the written agreements.  Whose idea was THAT?
From 2008 until the present time excavation at Lake A has proceeded pretty much at the convenience of the contractor.  When there has been a market for dirt, work picks up, when dirt sales are down, no work gets done.  At the end of 2010, with work sporadic to nonexistent, the next deadline for completion passed.  Finally, at the end of 2013 the City found itself negotiating with Halifax to terminate a series of agreements so vague as to be worthless while relying on records so confusing that estimates of what was owed ranged from one to three million dollars.  The final settlement with Halifax allows them to either complete the work on Lake A or pay the City an equivalent amount in “dirt-dollars.”  A cubic yard of dirt from Halifax has now been negotiated to be worth $3.50 to the City but the City can only get about $2.50 when it sells it!  Whose idea was THAT?
This is but a short summary of one part of the Reclaimed Water mess that has been ongoing for well over a decade.  The failed “sock system” at the Reclaim Lakes as well as the miserably performing Reclaimed Water Augmentation Ponds are part of the overall picture.  All were designed and supervised by QLH during Port Orange’s Golden Age when we spent money like drunken sailors and nobody asked questions.  While most senior City staff from that age are gone—Ken Parker, Roger Smith and John Shelley are all history—Quentin L Hampton is still hanging on.
After thirty years of working with the same engineering firm, staff in Public Utilities is no doubt comfortable with the arrangement and have formed personal relationships over the years with many of the QLH staff.  While some of that is a good thing, we have already witnessed the disastrous results of a too-close a relationship between staff in the Finance Department and their long-term auditing firm.
The recent case of theft by Masci Corporation employees of 84 loads of dirt from the Ruth St site is all too similar to the problems with Halifax Paving.  The general opinion by QLH at the conclusion of that contract was that Masci had done a good job; the “mistake” had been caught and eventually paid for, so let’s move on.  It’s worth noting that the mistake was not caught by the City, the contractor or the engineer.  I, for one, want a little less comfortable and cozy and a lot more concern over where my tax dollars wind up.  Perhaps it’s time for some new perspectives in our choice of engineers.
Mike Gardner

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