The Blame Game

Published 9:26 am Thursday, August 7, 2014

WINTON – Despite its groundbreaking nearly 15 months ago, the Tunis waste water collection system project remains mired in delays.

Now, action by the county commissioners may have kept the stalemate from becoming a standoff.

At the Hertford County Board of Commissioner’s meeting on Monday, the commissioners heard from the construction company’s project manager who admits that there are among other items, conflicts with the engineer over design versus execution of the project, and complaints that have been conveyed through the county Public Works Department.

“I feel like I’ve called myself to the principal’s office, so bear with me,” said Sunland Utility Division Manager Charles Hooks as he addressed the board.

Hooks said Sunland was facing a “significant” amount of liquidated damages because of delays with completion of the project.

“We feel that the job is poorly designed,” Hooks said, in speaking of the Wooten Company from Greenville, the engineering firm under contract to the county. “We’ve absorbed months of time re-designing this project because the (original) plans were very vague.  The fact that there was not one tank (of 49) placed based on what the plans were.”

Hooks claimed Sunland was given too brief an amount of time to align with the engineer’s plans.

“They didn’t do proper design in this project to give the contractor a set of plans that say, ‘here, go do the job’…so we don’t really know which way to proceed.”

Hooks explained that he had forwarded Sunland’s complaints to County Manager Loria Williams and said if the county would delay the liquidated damages, then Sunland would return and finish the job.

“I came to let you know that Sunland is here to complete this project and make everybody happy as best we can,” Hooks stated.

When asked how often Sunland meets with the county’s representatives, Williams told the commissioners that she has met monthly with the contractor and other technical people to discuss the project.

“When a contractor goes off a timeline those types of things are to be documented during the times when we’ve had those conversations with the contractor,” Williams explained.

Williams then further stated that the issues in question had been discussed with County Attorney Charles Revelle and reminded the commissioners that once the county, as owner of the sewer system, reviewed the concerns then the board had to make the decision regarding the liquidated damages.

Revelle interjected that Sunland was aware that the liquidated damages would be addressed upon completion of the project. Both sides’ representatives, he said, would come before the commissioners and voice their concerns regarding the issues.

“But it’s not going to be addressed until the project is completed,” Revelle emphasized. “That’s why we’ve been urging Sunland to complete the project.”

Williams said Sunland received a notice to proceed in May of this year.

“I don’t think there was any construction started until in and around the end of July and the first of August (2013),” Williams said.

The County Manager went on to say there was a substantial completion date of ‘somewhere around the first of January’.

“It was initially early to mid-December and then some additional time was requested by Sunland,” said Revelle. “Engineers suggested a lesser time and the commissioners granted something in between; but those deadlines were also three or four months late.”

Williams said the last completion date was early January.

“Per the contract, anytime you go over your contract date there is and can be assessed a $700 per day fine,” Williams said, “thus the liquidated damages per any standard contract.”

Revelle said damages weren’t assessed because the county desired to do so, but because of additional costs incurred by the county.

“We’re now eight months past the completion date and (the engineers) have to be paid for their services,” Revelle told the board. “So the county incurs costs – out of pocket costs – as the delays mount up.

“Theoretically, liquidated damages are in contracts to encourage contractors to complete on time because we have citizens who are waiting for sewer services,” Revelle said. “Until the system is operational there are no revenues coming in to provide money to pay off that debt.  Six months after the bonds are sold that first interest payment comes due and unless there are revenues coming in, that’s an additional cost…there are real out of pocket costs incurred because of delays.”

Hooks asked about the engineers’ additional fees and Williams told him the amount had exceeded $8,000.

“That was just the first amendment,” she informed him. “We asked for an additional amendment because the first deadline had already passed.  We urge you, sir, to finish.”

Williams said that the county had responded in writing to Sunland establishing substantial completion for early June and tying in the 39 home owners to be connected to the system.

“I’m not going to say 60 days,” Williams contended, “because I don’t know how much time it takes to connect (39 homes)…but they will have about 60 days once it’s in there.”

After Hooks had finished, the commissioners voted on an amendment (Amendment 4) to the owner-engineer agreement between the county and the Wooten Company. The amendment revision added 180 days (April 10-Oct. 6) to the agreement for the engineers’ services.  Commissioner Curtis Freeman made a motion to approve the amendment, seconded by Commissioner Johnny Ray Farmer, and the board approved it unanimously.