The cable company wants to know where they can bury their new line. No problem - except in Palmetto, where town officials have no idea where all the pipes and cables are buried.
In municipalities in Florida, contractors are required to give clear and accurate records of what's where and when it was buried.
As Built, also know as "record drawings": A revised set of drawing submitted by a contractor upon completion of a project or a particular job. They reflect all changes made in the specifications and working drawings during the construction process, and show the exact dimensions, geometry, and location of all elements of the work completed under the contract. From Business Dictionary.
In Palmetto lingo it's called "As Built," referring to the submitted certified records required by contractors before they get the final payment for the project.
Without these records, it's like driving in the night without lights. And Palmetto Public Works employees are blind as to where some of the buried infrastructure is.
The man to speak to about buried pipes and cable in Palmetto is George Fountain, the department's utilities locator and project inspector. His job is to know the precise location and size of all buried pipes and cables in Palmetto.
When the cable man or a plumber asks Fountain what's buried where before they plan to dig, at times Fountain throws up his hands in frustration, unable to answer the most basic questions asked of the Public Works Department.
Fountain lashed out at the unaccountable expenditures on infrastructure allegedly done by Westra Construction. For years he says has been frustrated by the lack of documentation required by law.
"I wanted to know where the money was going for the stuff that was going into the ground," Fountain said in sworn testimony. "I had no idea. And come to find out, I'll never know, really. I can't understand all this money that passed through the hands of whatever individuals, where it went to. I'd like to know. I really would. Because of all the infrastructure that was done and we never had a set of actual 'As Built' information or plans given into the engineering department by the company that did the work."
Fountain: I wanted to know where all this money was going, and I had no idea. And come to find out, I'll never know, really. I can't understand all this money that passed through the hands of whatever individuals, where it went to. I'd like to know. I really would. Because of all the infrastructure that was done and we never had a set of actual "As Built" information or plans given into the engineering department by the company that did the work.
Fountain: Yes, sir, and then eventually it will cost us money because then they're going to have to come out and actually, um, try to find the information in which we should have had in the first place.
In spite of the lack of information, the Public Works employees have muddled through. So how did the city of Palmetto get itself into such a pickle? Why didn't the contractor doing the infrastructure supply the city with the "As Built" documentation that's demanded by Palmetto ordinances? Who has the infrastructure records?
To unravel this mystery, Public Works employees point to Westra Construction Company, Palmetto's sole infrastructure contractor. Since 2000, the city has allegedly paid Westra more than $21 million in no-bid contracts to do the city's infrastructure work.
And these no-bid contracts appear to be against Palmetto's codes.
Palmetto Section 2-57
According to Palmetto Code 2-57 in force at the time, "All contracts for the procurement of goods and services, costing in the aggregate, ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or more, shall be let on the basis of sealed bids solicited through formal advertisement in newspapers of local or area circulation."
And while this ordinance has since been updated - the last time on April 20 of this year by current Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant to increase the amount to $50,000 - it is still less than many of the alleged no-bid payouts made to Westra Construction Company.
The tale of the records
So where are all the "As Built" infrastructure records?
Jerry Hester, project manager for Westra Construction, said he gave all "As Built" plans to Palmetto's Public Works Department. "I dealt personally with Christopher Lukowiak, Frank Woodard, Duane Kinn and Allen Tusing. Ask them," Hester said.
Tusing, the current director of Public Works, confirms Hester's contention that "As Builts" were supplied to the city. "I investigated this rumor, and I can say we have all 'As Builts'," Tusing said. "I even asked the engineering department to pull the list of all documents, and I can state that we have all 'As Builts.' I even told Mayor Bryant that we have all 'As Builts' for all contracts."
When pressed by additional questions about missing "As Builts," Tusing repeated, "Mayor Bryant knows the city has all 'As Builts,' because I told her."
But the city's own records contradict Tusing's assertion that his department has all of the "As Builts."
Document Alleging "No As Builts"
A document titled "No As Builts" allegedly lists completed water, sanitary sewer and reclaimed water infrastructures projects affecting areas of Palmetto with no "As Built" documentation. Information in the document contains such comments as, "We have no idea where the lines have been installed."
The job of the City Clerk
A municipality has a city clerk to keep everyone honest. In Palmetto, the city clerk for the past five years is Jim Freeman, who "supervises the collection and distribution of funds by the city." Freeman "oversees and coordinates enforcement of various ordinances."
When asked how he could sign checks to Westra Construction Company which allegedly did not comply with the town's ordinances for "As Builts" and competitive bidding, Freeman replied, "We had a check and balance procedure, where department heads would have to approve an expenditure before I would write out a check."
Department heads such as former Public Works Director Chris Lukowiak and Frank Woodard allegedly gave the approvals.
Allowing expenditures based solely on a department head's approval allegedly created an enviornment where salaried employees would not have to put in a full day's work, and even go golfing on city time, and still get paid. All because a department head would have approved it.
So an alleged approval based on a nod from a department head to sanction payments of $21 million in contracts that were not advertised for bidding, violating Palmetto Code 2-57, does not seem all that far fetched.
Palmetto Code outlining
The 'As Built' procedure
According to Palmetto Code Sec. 26-28, contractors are required to follow a detailed "As Built" procedure: "The developer shall submit to the city engineer, high quality, reproducible, Mylar, As Built drawings prepared and certified by the engineer of record, showing the actual installation of all such improvements, as may be required by such agencies."
Typically, a contractor wishing to receive his final payment for completing the contractual project will submit certified documentation of location and description of buried objects - the "As Builts."
Across the Manatee River in Bradenton, the comparable code demands that plans be given to Bradenton city officials. According to Arlen Cummings, the Engineering Division superintendent for the city of Bradenton's Public Works Department, record drawings must be given to the city before getting paid for the project.
"The city of Bradenton requires at the completion of an infrastructure project that the contractor is required to supply the city with two 24-inch-by-34-inch hard copies of plans, accompanied with a digital copy of the project," Cummings said.
Former Public Works employee James Rowland, in sworn testimony, said not having "As Built" records was very costly for the city of Palmetto.
"That's a real costly costly, um, ordeal to not have the 'As Builts' of the infrastructure that's in the ground, below the ground, something that you can't see. So, you're always having to dig and try and find it.," Rowland said. "So, you're always having to dig and try and find it. And then, inevitably you're going to hit something and break something. And then it's going to cost more money."
Rowland: And we were lacking that. So it was a hit and miss when you were out there in the field and you're working. And it's a hit and miss for the guys that do the infrastructure work for the city for repairs, whether it be storm water, or whether it be sewer lines or water lines. And that's a real costly costly, um, ordeal to not have the "As Builts" of the infrastructure that's in the ground, below the ground, something that you can't see. So, you're always having to dig and try and find it. And then, inevitably you're going to hit something and break something. And then it's going to cost more money.
So what's so important about knowing where pipes and cables are buried? No big deal, right?
Try telling that to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has ordered all 87,525 local governments in the U.S. to fix their sanitary sewer systems by 2019. Sanitary sewer overflow may result in Clean Water Act violations. Fines can reach $25,000 a day.
The EPA estimates it will cost local municipalities more that $450 billion to repair their waste-water infrastructure. How is Palmetto going to efficiently and cost effectively comply with the EPA edict when they don't know where the sewer pipes are?
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