Palmetto project falls months behind, affecting residents, commissioner says

mvalverde@bradenton.comJuly 9, 2012 

PALMETTO -- Delayed permits and a misunderstanding of what streets were to be fixed under a federal grant are among reasons a Palmetto neighborhood revitalization project has fallen about seven months behind schedule.

Now, area residents and business owners are suffering the brunt of it, a city commissioner said.

"We have business owners that have been affected, roads have been closed during lunch hours. There are residents who come home from working all day long to find out they can't park on the road," said Commissioner Charles Smith, who represents the Ward 1 area that is under construction. "I get complaints after complaints from residents and business owners saying they can't get there because of the roads closed."

The Ward 1 Phase II project is meant to improve the neighborhood bounded by Eighth Avenue West and Fifth Avenue West and 10th Street and 12th Street Drive. The project calls for wider sidewalks, new roadways and new water and sewer lines, among other things.

Some of the streets, like 12th Street Drive West, have been paved and provide a smooth travel path for motorists and pedestrians.

Others, like 11th Street West and Fifth Avenue West, are still dirt roads. Heavy equipment, long cylinder pipes, and other construction gear were on site last week as crews continued working.

On Oct. 4, 2010, the Palmetto City Commission unanimously approved a contract worth approximately $2.27 million to Gator Grading and Paving, LLC. for the Ward 1 Phase II project. The contract was executed on Nov. 1, 2010.

Part of the funding was covered by a $750,000 Community Development Block Grant from the federal government, with the balance covered by Palmetto's Community Redevelopment Agency, according to city documents.

Allen Tusing, the city's director of public works, said notice to proceed was issued to the contractor on Feb. 14, 2011, and the project was estimated to be completed by Nov. 12, 2011.

Phase 2a is now expected to be completed by the end of the month or by mid-August, Tusing said.

"When the project was placed to bid I was advised that everything was in place to proceed," Tusing said in an email Friday, adding that in fact there were permits that had not been granted by then.

"It was discovered that the CSX railroad permit had not been secured," he said. There were also no Southwest Florida Water Management District permits "or letters stating that we did not need one."

It took a few months to get the water management district permits and that delayed a drainage portion of the project, he said.

Railroad tracks lay near Fifth Avenue, and permits with CSX, a company that operates and maintains tracks, were not completed till last month, Tusing said.

Receiving the federal grant required that Phase II be separated into two parts, Tusing said, Phase 2a and Phase 2b.

The work that was funded under the grant was completed by December 2011, he said. The Phase 2b area included 12th Street West, 12th Street Drive West and Sixth Avenue between 12th Street and 12th Street Drive, Tusing said.

"The contractor started on 11th Street drive," Tusing said. "It was discovered that the actual grant was from the north side of 11th Street Drive and did not include the street, only the homes along the street. The contractor then had to move to 12th and 12th Street Drive."

The wording of the grant led the city to confuse the streets that were covered under the grant, Tusing said.

Maurice Baxter, 30, who said lives near the construction zone, said the project had been "very inconvenient."

"Especially now that it's been raining lately, it's muddy, the kids can't even go out and play," Baxter said.

The roads are filled with potholes, he said.

"Personally, I don't think they're doing a good job for the community," Baxter said. "No one cares about the inner city."

Pastor Jeffrey Mills, of Greater St. Luke Primitive Baptist Church on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street Drive West, said the roads leading up to his church were once inaccessible and that their building was damaged by construction.

"Very heavy construction equipment was stored on church property, without permission, leaving indentations and uneven ground surfaces," a May 29, 2012, letter from Mills to the mayor and commission said.

The letter said that mud from the construction "was thrown against the south church wall," staining the wall. In the letter, he requests that the wall be painted and that additional top soil be added, and the replacement of broken concrete car stops on two of the church's parking lots.

Smith said the project was in "chaos" and lacked planning and coordination between the city and residents.

"There's no concern for the community, no outreach to the community to let them know it was going to take place," Smith said. "The public works department has responsibility to make sure contractors that come into the city do the work and are responsible to the neighborhood concerns. This is not taking place," he said.

Better leadership was needed in the public works department, Smith said.

Even though there is no project manager assigned to Ward 1 Phase II, there is an inspector on-site daily to monitor the progress, said Tusing. And if residents had any items that needed his personal attention then he met with them, Tusing said.

Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said a project manager was initially assigned, but due to budget cuts the position had to be eliminated. If the position was not needed year-round then it would not be filled, she said.

But starting today, a superintendent of public works would begin working for the city, Groover Bryant said.

"I do not concur about bad leadership," Groover Bryant said about Smith's statements about the need for better public works leadership. "(Tusing) inherited a lot of problems he had to work through."

Commissioner Tambra Varnadore said that Tusing was working with residents and taking care of issues, and that there were lessons to learn from the project.

In the future, there would be better observation of deadlines, planning, and permitting requirements, Varnadore said.

"With large projects like these things happen," she said. "And we try to do the best we can."

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