FDOT requires City of Sarasota to turn over more than twice as much money for water pipeline work in conjunction with construction of Gulfstream roundabout

City staff members report surprise at the request, which came after they gave FDOT about $217,000 in May

This aerial graphic shows the area around the proposed site of the roundabout at Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

This week, City of Sarasota staff and commissioners indicated they were blindsided by a recent Florida Department of Transportation request for the city to turn over to the department more than twice as much as originally expected for a utility project expected to start in January.

And, yes, Utilities Director William Riebe said on Aug. 17, staff members will have to pay the $490,000 instead of a little more than $200,000 by early next month, if they want that project to proceed as planned.

In May, the city commissioners approved a staff request to transfer $217,572 to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to cover the expense of replacing “old existing water mains” along U.S. 41 between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road “to improve chronic drainage issues,” as an Aug. 17 staff memo put it.

The goal, as city Utilities Director Riebe pointed out again during the board’s regular meeting on Aug. 17, is to ensure the water main project is undertaken in conjunction with the 2021 construction of the planned roundabout at the intersection of Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41. Staff wants to lessen disruption for city residents and visitors by making certain a solitary initiative is pursued, he said.

A May 18 staff memo pointed out that the utility work and the roundabout together are expected to cost $8,520,494.

The staff memo in the Aug. 17 agenda packet explained that the water pipeline project would “replace old asbestos cement water mains.” Trenchlesspedia.com explains, “A water main is a primary underground pipe in a municipal water distribution system. It is a major artery that supplies water to smaller pipes on the way to homes and businesses.”

The blue line in this graphic indicates the area of the planned water main project. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Further, the Aug. 17 city memo said, FDOT had provided an “official estimate” of the cost of the water main work at $197,793.30, and it had called for an extra 10% from the city to cover any contingencies.

However, the memo continued, shortly after the state department received the city funds, “FDOT notified the City that if [the city] wanted to continue with the agreement with FDOT, the City needed to transfer a total of $490,000 for the work by September 6, 2020, since this was the initial dollar amount listed in the Agreement approved by FDOT and the City Commission in December 2019.”

As Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown put it during the Aug. 17 meeting, “Surprise, surprise.”

When The Sarasota News Leader asked Brian Rick, spokesman for District One, about the issue, Rick checked with FDOT staff and provided a response on Aug. 19.

He pointed — as city staff had noted — that the City Commission in the spring “signed off on a Utility Work by Highway Contractor Agreement (UWHCA).” That agreement, Rick continued, “was based off cost estimates provided by the City at the time.

“Once the project is advertised,” he added, “bids may come in lower. At that point, the City can choose to get a refund of all or a portion of the excess funds. The refund is typically received within a week of their request. In turn, if the bids come in higher, the City will have to add the additional funds.”

Definitions and questions

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie had asked that the item be pulled from the board’s Consent Agenda No. 1 for Aug. 17, so she could ask for details about the situation. Her primary concern, she said, was the difference between what the FDOT agreement referred to as the “initial amount” and the “official amount.”

Signed on Dec. 11, 2019 by Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and on Jan. 27 by FDOT representatives, the FDOT contract says, “The initial estimate of the cost of the Utility Work is $490,000. At such time as the FDOT prepares its official estimate, the FDOT shall notify the [city] of the amount,” giving the city five working days within which to accept that “for purposes of making deposits and for determining any possible contribution on the part of the FDOT to the cost of the Utility Work, or to elect to have the Utility Work removed from the FDOT’s contract [for the roundabout project].”

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie offers a comment during the June 15 City Commission meeting, which was conducted via WebEx technology. File image

In other words, Freeland Eddie said of the last line, the city would have to pursue the water main work on its own.

The staff memo for the agenda item did note that FDOT “plans to issue the construction contract for the [water main] work in November 2020. FDOT will return the balance of the funds ($490,000 less the actual construction contract amount plus 10% for contingencies) by December 31, 2020.” The memo added that staff anticipates “the total actual cost to be approximately $210,000.”

The water main project is expected to start in January 2021, the memo continued. City staff has told the commission that the roundabout work will begin after tourist season ends in the spring of 2021.

After reading the relevant section of the contract to her colleagues, Freeland Eddie pointed out, “This is where the contention lies,” between what the “initial estimate” was and what the “official estimate is.”

Does the city have to pay the full $490,000, she asked. As an attorney, she added, according to her reading of the contract, “I don’t think that we should be required to pay the full $490,000.”

Deputy City Manager Brown responded that he would let Utilities Director Riebe talk about the “pleading and begging” that took place between staff members and representatives of FDOT’s District 1 office, which is in Bartow.

“We actually went to the district offices in Bartow,” Riebe reported, indicating lack of success in the ensuing discussions.

“Just be mindful,” he told the commissioners: “This is [FDOT’s] contract. … The FDOT is kind of in the driver’s seat. … We would like to get the [water main] work done as part of a DOT project.”

He also acknowledged, “We actually were surprised … that they wanted more money.”

Utilities Director Bill Riebe addresses the City Commission on Feb. 4, 2019. File image

Then Freeland Eddie asked how paying FDOT the $490,000 would affect customers and the Utilities Department itself.

The $490,000 was included in his department budget, Riebe responded. Whatever money FDOT returns to the city will go back into that department’s reserve fund, he added. “No impact on customer service [or the department],” he said.

Then, when Freeland Eddie asked for clarification about whether the Sept. 6 deadline was a hard one, Riebe told her, “That’s correct, yes.” The city would need to get the funds to FDOT by that date.

When Mayor Ahearn-Koch asked for a motion, Commissioner Liz Alpert made it, calling for approval of the FDOT request for the full $490,000 by Sept. 6.

Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it.

When City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs called the roll for the vote, Freeland Eddie was the only board member to vote “No.”