Archived News

Greenway contract dispute settled

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Macon County and Natural Resources Conservation Services officials have negotiated a settlement to a disputed bill submitted by engineering firm McGill Associates that came in approximately $200,000 higher than expected.

This January, McGill turned in a cost breakdown of work done on the Macon County Greenway to repair damage from hurricane-related flooding in 2004.

“The contractor who did the work provided a cost breakdown showing their equipment time and labor and materials to one of our engineers and there were some red flags,” said Mike Hinton, NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection program manager.

In a letter written to Macon County Manager Sam Greenwood, Hinton outlined several discrepancies between the scope of the work originally agreed upon and the work that was done.

Hinton cited three instances in which the amount of rip-rap, rocks and boulders used to line a streambank, was five to 21 times more than the rip-rap estimated to be used. In two instances — one in which five times more rip-rap was used and one in which 21 times more was used — the length of the site worked on was half that of what was originally proposed.

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Also, Hinton noted that a trackhoe and backhoe were shown operating 116 hours in one week — which would have amounted to more than 16 hours per day. And despite a reduction in the scope of the project, the cost for seed and plants was the same as before the reduction.

Consequently, the final cost jumped from a projected $750,000 to $950,000. None of the increases were approved through a change order, Greenwood said.

An even bigger gap exists, however, between NRCS’s original estimates and both the estimated and final bill. Immediately after the floods in 2004, NRCS did its own estimate of the work to be done on the greenway. The estimate was largely a judgment call without any surveying, Hinton said.

“We simply don’t have time to do that,” he said.

NRCS’s initial estimate came in at around $140,000 — McGill’s initial estimate of $750,000 was five times that; the cost of $950,000 nearly seven times more.

Hinton said that a difference in NRCS and engineering firm numbers isn’t necessarily indicative of a problem, as it’s not uncommon for construction costs to be more than NRCS estimates. Costs are refined as engineering firms refine their plans.

What Hinton said concerned him most were the discrepancies between the engineering firm McGill’s own numbers — how could a project cost $200,000 more than expected?

“I recognize that actual quantities often vary from the estimates, however the quantity variations associated with rip-rap far exceed what could be expected in most situations,” Hinton’s letter to Greenwood read. “Did the contractor inform you of these significant changes in quantities and the associated increase in cost? The hours of operation for trackhoes, dozers, dump trucks and other equipment did not vary significantly from the original estimates. It does not seem reasonable to think that nearly 3,500 tons of rip-rap could be installed with less equipment time than was originally estimated as needed to install 370 tons of rip-rap.”

County commissioners were unaware of the problems with the greenway project until shortly before their regular monthly meeting on Feb. 6 — more than a week after Hinton mailed his letter to Greenwood asking for an explanation.

“It’s not on the agenda,” said commissioner Bob Simpson, who is on the Greenway commission, just prior to the Feb. 6 meeting.

Moments before the meeting being called to order, commission Chairman Allan Bryson informed members of the media of a teleconference to be held between NCRS and Macon County officials.

“We did have a very positive teleconference,” Hinton said.

The group agreed for the county to work with McGill to confirm listed charges and then submit an official bill. However, Hinton cautioned that the reimbursement the county asks for may be different from what they actually get.

Under the federal program set up to recover from hurricane damages, NRCS will pay for 75 percent of construction costs and the state will pick up what would traditionally be the county’s 25 percent share. The $950,000 bill includes engineering fees, which Hinton said NRCS won’t pay for. The only way those engineering fees could be covered would be if county officials decided to apply those costs to their 25 percent share of the construction bill covered by the state — which is the solution county officials have reached, Greenwood said on Tuesday (March 7). The final bill submitted to NRCS came in at about $700,000, Greenwood said.

“I think the compromise has been reached,” he said.

The arrangement will save the county from paying any out of pocket costs — a good thing, as Macon County Finance Director Evelyn Southard said the county doesn’t have the money to pay for the project.

“It’s not appropriated, we don’t have an appropriation for that at all,” Southard said.

As of January, Macon County had approximately $348,000 in its contingency fund. That money is supposed to last through June 30. If the county faced any additional costs, funds would most likely have to come from reserves, Southard said.

NRCS officials have been doing rounds with Macon County since the September 2004 floods. In December 2005 streambank restoration along Peeks Creek, where a massive landslide killed six residents following the back-to-back hurricanes, was put on hold as county officials waited to hear if they would receive funds to do the project after missing initial application deadlines.

Eventually, Macon County was granted a special extension, allowing the project to proceed and its costs to be covered by NRCS funds. The project is now underway with most of the heavy equipment work having been completed, Greenwood said. Planting vegetation will have to wait for slightly warmer weather, but all in all the project is on track.

“We’ll meet the timetable and the deadline for getting all that done,” Greenwood said.

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