The Board of County Commissioners, with one notable exception, has insisted that the Americus Ditch project is a thing of the past.
To residents in the area, and the commissioner who serves them, it is an ever-present problem.
Last week pipes were again exposed, as residents called this paper to express frustration, revealing issues with how the pipes are connected and highlighting that a significant portion of the water flowing through the ditch is not reaching its proposed destination.
“It is a mess,” said resident Bill Koran told the BOCC during a meeting two months ago. “With heavy rains, my house has been flooded twice. I would like to know how this contract was awarded and how it was inspected. This project was not done correctly.
“Was the contractor qualified for this kind of project? And according to my research, Preble Rish designed and inspected the project and I think that is a bit like the fox guarding the hen house.”
According to county staff, the county has undertaken repairs of the project that number in the hundreds, from fixing pipes to, this week, placing fill dirt in areas where pipes have popped up, not fully connected, above ground.
This beyond the original price tag, which Clerk of Courts Becky Norris said at a recent BOCC meeting was over $1 million.
When he first came before the BOCC Koran provided a list of questions he wanted answered by commissioners and got no response in a subsequent meeting.
Commissioner Carmen McLemore suggested staff did not have time to research the particulars of the project and said questions ought to be directed to the State Attorney.
McLemore was the lone member of the current board who voted on the Americus Ditch project, casting a dissenting vote.
When Koran initially approached the board, McLemore fundamentally agreed with the faults with the project.
“That is our $1 million pipe that doesn’t work,” McLemore said.
However, Commissioner Joanna Bryan ran into a wall from fellow commissioners when she pressed the subject. Commissioners said at the first meeting in September they had no desire to look backward at a project bid and constructed more than six years ago.
“I want to move this county forward,” said Commissioner Warren Yeager.
Commissioners approved by a 4-1 vote, Bryan dissenting, to have county administrator Don Butler decide the legitimacy of requests for information; the jail and Americus Ditch were hot button topics as Bryan was seeking information on those two in addition to how road bond money had been spent in the past.
Commissioners also voted in the past two months to reaffirm that contract negotiations be overseen by Butler and county attorney Jeremy Novak.
But Bryan noted last week that the Americus Ditch project remains a problem, with constituents calling her about the ongoing issues with the project in St. Joe Beach.
Bryan said her original questions about the project were as much centered on Americus Ditch as county policy for bidding and letting contracts, particularly $1 million contracts.
“This is a poster child for the wrong way to do business,” Bryan said. “It concerns me about how many other projects have been done this way and the exposure for liability.”
Brad Bailey, whose company was the contractor on the project, and Ralph Rish from Preble Rish Engineers appeared before the BOCC to clarify what they said were false statements made about the project.
Rish acknowledged there were problems with the project and pledged that Preble Rish would assist the county in addressing those problems.
Bryan said she intended to hold Rish to that promise, noting that the problems, despite the comments from commissioners, continue with little relief for residents in the area.