After talking about it for months, county commissioners finally acted to address chronic problems with the Americus Ditch in St. Joe Beach.

After talking about it for months, county commissioners finally acted to address chronic problems with the Americus Ditch in St. Joe Beach.

Commissioners, by a 3-1 vote, approved a memorandum of understanding with Preble Rish Engineers to undertake repairs in selected areas to create a methodology for fixing the entire length so the project.

Commissioner Warren Yeager, an employee of Preble Rish abstained, and Commissioner Joanna Bryan, saying she would like to see public input on the MOU and raising questions about fixing only select sections, voted no.

The Americus Ditch has been a headache for the county almost since installation of the $1 million project more than five years ago.

County employees – and, Bryan noted, county taxpayers – have completed more than 120 fixes of the pipe since installation and there are at least 25 remaining areas that require attention, Bryan said.

 Preble Rish is agreeing to address five of those areas almost as a pilot project to understand what will be needed to fix the entire project.

A section of a letter from Rish which was codified as the MOU, which would have released the engineering firm of record from future responsibility was removed, Rish noted.

“We have no problem with that,” Rish said. “We are going to look at the five locations to provide a methodology for fixing the other areas. We need to get a cross section of what is going on.

“I know there are problems there, big problems.”

Preble Rish has agreed to provide dollars for materials needed to fix all areas of the pipe and to come back to the county with a final report on the best method for addressing the problems.

Left unresolved is who picks up the tab for fixing the remainder of the project.

That led to some tense exchanges.

Rish said he believed the issue was less about Preble Rish and more about him.

“This is a Ralph Rish issue for four or five people in this county,” he told the board, adding that Bryan was “carrying the water” for those individuals.

He said his company had a limited inspection responsibility for the project, reflected in the reduced costs for engineering and inspection serviced offered on the project.

Rish also noted that while Preble Rish had been subject to the ongoing BOCC discussions pertaining to Americus Ditch, there had been little talk about the contractor on the job.

Bryan disagreed with several points, particularly about the responsibility of the county’s engineer for the project.

“Preble Rish was responsible for the engineering and inspection of the project,” Bryan said, adding that no language in the contract indicates the responsibility for inspections was “limited.” “They represented the county. Every taxpayer in the county is footing the bill for this project.”

Bryan attempted to continue the discussion but was ruled out of order by Commission chair Ward McDaniel.

Before relinquishing the floor, she noted that she had still not received answers to a series of questions about the project which had been placed in the public information packet months back only to be pulled by vote of the full board.

Commissioners Tan Smiley and Carmen McLemore said they were ready to move ahead with the MOU, McLemore adding that it would not be a surprise of Preble Rish pulled its offer.

“He is under no obligation,” McDaniel said of Rish. “He’s offered to assist the county. He doesn’t have to do anything.”

Resident Tom Graney said the fixes of the pipe were only part of the “fiasco” that Americus Ditch has come to represent for many.

While expressing appreciation to Preble Rish, while asserting its responsibility to assist, and praising the MOU as an excellent plan moving forward, Graney said commissioners had yet to address systemic problems with the county process for bidding and awarding contracts.

Saying the contractor was unqualified from the outset – the contractor allegedly lacked required documents and bonding and has since gone out of business – he said commissioners could not deflect responsibility because it was a previous board that made the decisions.

“Taxpayers are paying for this,” Graney said. “Your bid policy violated Florida law. No one is talking about who is responsible for this. I want somebody held responsible for the bid process, for this fiasco. As a taxpayer, you are obligated to do that.

“This was poor work by the county commission and by county staff. That comes back to you. The commission has to hold somebody accountable for this project that was screwed up from the beginning.”

McLemore, the lone commissioner on the board at the time the project was awarded, noted he opposed the project, thought it was a “bad project” and “would never work.”

Economic development

On two fronts, commissioners received positive news on economic development.

Tourism Development Council executive director Jennifer Jenkins said during a recent trip to New York she spoke with officials of a boutique cruise line about dockage in Port St. Joe.

The company, Travel Dynamics, had been interested in stopping in Port St. Joe for cultural/arts themed cruises, but found the conditions along Jetty Park and the so-called “low docks” – which fall in the city of Port St. Joe but are also part of the Port of Port St. Joe master plan – lacking as well as an absence of activities for cruise goers.

Jenkins said she pitched the concept of an eco-excursion and the company agreed to target April 2015 to arrive in Port St. Joe on a trip out of New Orleans and stopping at other north Gulf locations.

“I told them we are committed to this,” Jenkins said, adding there was work to do – determining dockage rates, improvements to the low docks, etc. – but that she hoped to be in line to begin marketing the cruises this April.

She said the company was also looking at other cruise stops in the future.

The BOCC also heard from Alex Mouton of M3 Services, which is looking to establish a base of operations in Gulf County, creating as many as 100 jobs over the first three years.

Mouton is close to lining up financing, the last hurdle for M3, which has been in talks with the Gulf County Economic Development Alliance and Port of Port St. Joe for over a year.

The company would work in government defense industries, specifically aerospace, Mouton said.