Deal on beaches may save jobs of 2 commissioners
Trucking in sand for the current beach replenishment project – rather than pumping it onto beaches from the sea -- was designed to inject $7.3 million into the local economy and provide 100 temporary construction jobs, but last week’s deal upping the price tag by $3 million may help save two additional jobs: the County Commission seats of Peter O’Bryan and Joe Flescher.
Should the project have fallen apart due to an impasse in contract negotiations, the whole commission -- but especially Flescher and O’Bryan -- would have had a great deal to answer for.
O’Bryan, who serves as liaison to the county’s Beaches and Shores Preservation Committee, went against the panel’s recommendations and backed the use of upland sand as a way to save millions now and in future projects.
Flescher, who represents the replenishment area, will have to answer to constituents in Indian River Shores and Orchid in November, taking either the credit or the blame for the outcome of the project.
Under pressure from contractors who are desperate to recoup the mounting costs of the ever-shifting specifications for the inland sand replenishment, the county agreed to changes that now bring the project to a $14.6 million tag, which includes engineering work and an artificial reef expected to be required to be built in 2013.
The turning point came only after threats from a sand mine owner that he would back off on production, supply only what was in the original contract, leaving the county about 50,000 cubic yards short -- meaning that some oceanfront residents would not get their sand.
“If we can’t make a deal and I don’t start getting paid for it, I will turn off the third dredge and go back to working eight hours a day,” Ranch Road Lake sand mine owner Steve Smith told Vero Beach 32963 the day prior to coming to settlement with the county.
But even with the deal sealed, the project is running behind.
With 60 percent of the allotted time gone, only 44 percent of the sand delivered, and a mere 15 percent of the project actually constructed, the neighborhoods most in danger of getting left out are Baytree and Marbrisa, according to the county’s coastal engineer James Gray. They’re slated to be done last.
This does not seem like a strategic plan, as those very communities were forced to chip in their own cash to fund emergency sand replenishment after the 2004 hurricanes. Marbrisa was declared an area of critical erosion, with the east end of its community swimming pool left bare to the elements with no sand underneath.
Flescher said a lot of things have gone against progress of the project, from changes in the specifications to tight regulation to bad weather.
“The work must stop on April 30 due to sea turtle nesting season and that’s a reality,” he said. “If we didn’t get those last two points done, some would say the mission failed, but the mission didn’t fail. There have been significant changes and delays.”
Even if Phase One ultimately falls short of its goal Flescher said he still stands behind his vote for upland sand.
“The simple truth is that, had the upland sand providers not come into the picture and we had gone with the original process, we would not have been able to do the project, we wouldn’t have had the funding,” Flescher said.
“The upland sand came in at a much cheaper cost factor and then the offshore bidder even lowered his bid. I have a problem with someone lowering his bid by $9 million all of a sudden.”
The project was originally slated to cost $21 million, which was reduced to $19.7 million and then down to $13.1 million after the upland sand bid came in at the original $7.3 million.
That kind of bargain bidding may or may not be the case in the future, now that sand miners know the full cost -- in time, equipment, manpower and aggravation -- involved in keeping and doing a large-scale beach replenishment job.
Commissioner Wesley Davis, who has family ties to the sand mining business in both his brother, owner of Brian Davis Sand Mine, and his cousin, who happens to be Ranch Road Lake mine owner Steve Smith, had been urging commissioners to settle before the dispute got nasty.
Commissioner Gary Wheeler voted for the $3 million fix because he thought the impasse between the county and Ranger Construction had reached a point where fairness dictated a solution.
“I want the best deal for the county that we can get, but I don’t want to take advantage of a vendor to get a better deal, “ Wheeler said.
Wheeler said that he didn’t feel any political pressure to vote for the compromise. But then, he knew there were already three votes -- Davis, Flescher and O’Bryan -- to approve.
Yet, faced with the prospect of a shutdown that would be far more costly at this point, Commissioners opted for explaining to the voters why they had to spend $3 million more of their tax dollars on sand.
O’Bryan did exactly that last week in an appearance before the Indian River Shores Town Council.
“I asked for an explanation about the $3 million overrun and he went through three separate change orders and worked out to be the $3 million and explained how we got there,” said Mayor Bill Kenyon said.
When asked if O’Bryan thought to mention that Baytree and Marbrisa, two upscale Shores communities, might not get their sand if Ranger runs out of time to complete Phase One, Kenyon said it did not come up.
“He didn’t mention that, but we didn’t talk a whole lot about the limited time that was left,” Kenyon said. “He didn’t suggest that they would possibly run out of time.”
Overall, Kenyon said the town and its constituents have been left with a bit of a hangover from all the ups and downs of beach replenishment in recent years.
“This thing, it has been a real bummer from the word ‘go’ and now if they don’t finish it this year, these people are going to get upset,” he said.
The Beaches and Shores Preservation Committee meets on April 19, and the county should have a pretty clear idea of whether or not Ranger Construction will be able to finish the project by April 30.
When it comes down to the wire, if it appears that anyone may be left out, Gray said there may be an opportunity to prioritize exactly what the last place to get its sand will be.