It’s no secret that with three seats up for reelection on the Mexico Beach City Council next month, the council’s decisions on the historic Parker House may weigh heavily into the public’s choices.
Despite feelings about the project’s history, all incumbents agree that progress needs to be made; they just have different views on how to go about it.
The city purchased the Parker House and property in July 2011 for $429,000 with plans to use it as a new city hall. On July 29 the property caught fire due to an electrical issue and was considered a loss.
Shortly thereafter the insurer paid $322,622 for damages and the council bid out redesigns on the city hall with hopes of utilizing the existing structure.
With just two bids submitted the project was awarded to Cathey Construction out of Mexico Beach.
Toward the end of 2011, designs were drafted for the new city hall and Cathey Construction began demolition of the building in March 2012 but uncovered issues with the foundation that could hamper rebuilding.
Councilman Jack Mullen brought the issues to the insurance company over several visits to its Lake Mary office, even taking Cathey Construction owner Brian Cathey with him on one occasion.
In November an insurance representative visited the Parker House but decided that the slab was fine to rebuild on.
The council, not convinced, hired Nova Engineering out of Panama City for a second opinion. After conducting a foundation analysis and soil borings Nova agreed with Cathey Construction that the slab should not be used.
The council decided to build the new city hall on Parker House property, but in a different location and began designs on the plans.
Rather than rebid the project, which had changed in size and scope, it stayed with Cathey Construction, which has been an ethical sticking point among citizens.
“Brian Cathey is the one person who’s gone over there and knew what he’s talking about,” said Councilman Gary Woodham. “He’s totally responsible for all the insurance money we’ve made.
“He should receive gratitude, not condemnation.”
While the insurance company had paid the city $660,000 for damages, more than $140,000 was spent in rent and upkeep costs on the damaged building over two years, leaving the council just $485,000 to construct the new city hall.
Finally, the city received a settlement offer from the insurance company in February for $174,000 on the remaining damages and a new foundation.
Shortly thereafter, an executive session was held to discuss official numbers on the project and at February’s regular meeting Woodham told the council that he wanted to confer with a lawyer to explore the possibility of getting more money from the insurance company through litigation.
After the visit, Woodham told the council that according to the lawyer, the city might be able to receive more money, though an official number has not been released.
Woodham said that if more funds are received from the insurance company, the city won’t have to lean on taxpayer money for the construction of city hall.
“There’s more money on the table,” said Woodham. “I want a city hall that we can all be proud of.
“I’m part of the community and I want it to be beautiful for future generations.”
During last month’s meeting Councilwoman Tanya Castro was vocal about not litigating with the insurance company.
When asked, she said that while she didn’t know if the settlement was fair, she favored progress over litigation.
“The only information to say that the settlement is unfair is coming from the contractor,” said Castro. “Let’s settle and move forward.”
Castro has encouraged the council to consider whether the cost of litigation could outweigh the costs of the new city hall.
Castro said her main concern was that the current bid price from Cathey Construction is more than the city can afford after two years of upkeep.
“We need to stop and ask if it makes sense to spend what appears to be a million dollars on a city hall for six employees that most citizens will never go to,” said Castro. “Is that what our taxpayers need?”
Castro said she was concerned that the new city hall wouldn’t have public space available. She expressed that Mexico Beach is already in need of a building for special events.
During a workshop last month citizens expressed confusion on why a 3,200 square foot city hall was even needed.
“It’s a lot of money to build a house that size on land we own,” said Mullen, commiserating with the statements.
The members of the council agreed that progress must be made, but they must decide which direction to go. Demolition will begin soon on the Parker House and citizens will be looking for something to take its place.
“I just want to see us move in a positive direction,” said Woodham. “During this campaign I’ve learned that a lot of people don’t know the true facts.
“I want to give them those facts to help them make a decision.”
Despite which way the Council decides to go, it seems that everything has a price.
“Look at the indirect costs of negative publicity,” said Castro. “The price the city has paid…it’s beyond measure.”
Tuesday’s regular meeting
At Tuesday’s regular meeting Woodham shared a letter he received fromattorney Dion Moniz who looked over some of the insurance documents.
According to the letter, the settlement being offered was “insufficient” because it implied that the Parker House was a commercial-use building at the time of the fire.
The building should have been, said Woodham, considered a city hall as soon as it was insured by the city.
Moniz’s letter also suggested the settlement does not cover the costs for redesigns that the city completed after the structural analysis or site work that had been completed so far.
A specific amount the city could pursue wasn’t given without the lawyer having access to a list of unreimbursed funds but if hired, he would attempt to get them without litigation and only sue the insurance company if necessary.
The lawyer recommended the council hold an executive session at the end of the month to meet with he and Brian Cathey of Cathey Construction to discuss the specifics.
Castro disagreed the Parker House could be considered a city hall since it was empty at the time of the fire and expressed concern that paying the litigation costs could use up money that the city doesn’t have.
“This could take a long time,” said city attorney Paul Komarek. “This process typically takes longer than people would like and costs more than they expect.”
Komarek encouraged the council to hold an executive session to get as much information as possible before making a decision. He reminded the council that due to Florida law, a lawsuit must be filed within five years from the day off loss and that while there’s no time frame for accepting the settlement offer, the insurance company could withdraw it at any time.
Demolition on the Parker House was slowed down by rainy weather but is expected to be complete by next week.