Clearwater City Council members may have heard this was coming, but residents didn't learn until this week that it is going to cost almost $2-million more than expected to build the city boat slip project on the downtown waterfront.
The estimate of $11-million that was given to residents before they voted on the project in March 2007 is out the window. The new number is $12.8-million and change.
A couple of immediate questions arise.
Why did this happen?
And what should the City Council do now?
Residents who know the history of escalating prices for city projects in Clearwater will immediately conclude that the city staff fouled up again. They may remember the Harborview Center project, the Municipal Services Building project, the Beach Walk project and a variety of other projects that ended up costing a whole lot more than originally estimated.
Sometimes there were legitimate reasons for the escalation, such as long delays between the original project approval and the project's start. Costs do go up over time.
Other times, there were mistakes made by the city — overlooked requirements, miscalculations, lack of familiarity with project details — or poor performance by consultants or contractors.
And sometimes, city officials just changed their minds about what they wanted and tinkered with the projects' specifications.
There seems to be some of all that in the rising boat slip project cost.
The original cost of the project was estimated by hired consultants based on the city's description of what it wanted to build. Wade Trim, the leading consultant the city hired, brought in two marine contracting firms to estimate the cost at around $11-million in 2006. That's the number voters had when they went to the polls in March 2007.
Now, well over a year later, the city is about to hire the contractor to build the project, and at Monday's City Council work session, Wade Trim announced that the cost has risen.
A host of reasons was offered. The prices of concrete, steel and petroleum-based products have gone up. Copper, which will be used in electric lines to the boat slips, is way up. Even the fall in the value of the U.S. dollar is having some impact, because some of the dock materials will come from Finland.
But even more of the increase is due to changes in the project specifications. The city and its consultant had underestimated the amount of electric power that would be needed at the boat slips. The city and its consultant also decided that more wave attenuators were needed to better protect the slips from waves in Clearwater Harbor — something critics of the project talked about for many months before the vote in March 2007.
The city also decided that more work needed to be done along the waterfront — more sidewalks, more lighting, more landscaping, a change in a passenger dropoff area. Some of those changes are regarded as necessities by the city staff to meet city code and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Were those requirements forgotten in the original estimates? Other tinkering is to improve the "ambience" of the dock area, city staffers said.
Some City Council members expressed their unhappiness with the new estimate, but those who had supported the project remained supporters, primarily because the city staff came up with a way to cover the extra costs without spending general tax revenue.
The boat slip project will be great for downtown Clearwater and for the area's boaters. Hundreds of boaters have e-mailed the city to express interest in getting a slip.
However, it doesn't look good that the city and its hired hands have once again missed rather badly on estimating a project's cost. And council members ought to think carefully before spending money on extras for "ambience" at a time when important, existing city programs are being cut because of falling tax revenues.
Council members also ought to seriously consider an idea floated by Mayor Frank Hibbard to buy down the debt the city will take on for this project by using some untouched interest revenue in an existing fund, thereby trimming project costs in the long run.
In these tough times, the public needs to see that elected officials are being particularly careful stewards of every penny.