After 17 years of planning, it is hard to fathom that a multimillion-dollar public works project could turn into a rush job that neglects community outreach and is missing a strong ombudsman to answer public concerns. But that is the image of the ongoing dredge of the Hernando Beach channel from those living closest to the work site who complain of nonstop noise, personal property damage from the work crews and most inexcusably, a lack of response from Hernando County to their concerns.
As Times staff writers John Woodrow Cox and Barbara Behrendt detailed, three property owners closest to the so-called off-load site believe the dredge is responsible for nearly $120,000 in damage to their docks and seawalls.
Dredge contractor BCPeabody acknowledges some damage, but disputes the dollar amount. But the lack of commitment to investigate the legitimacy of the claims is illustrated by the run-around given to residents who were never told to file a claim with the contractor's insurance carrier. Worse is the cavalier attitude toward the public complaints as indicated by a dredge employee who barked at one of the neighbors, in front of Times reporters, to "give it up. It ain't never going to happen. Dream big. Keep dreaming.''
Hernando Beach taxpayers shouldn't have to tolerate such callous flippancy. Or danger. In one instance, neighbors photographed a dredge employee operating a welding torch within feet of tanks holding thousand of gallons of fuel. They also said they documented workers violating county ordinances and permit standards by speeding and by reckless navigating of the channel water. The county shouldn't give short-shrift to those mishaps.
Much of the dilemma is attributed to an artificial deadline to complete the dredge by the end of the year or risk losing $6 million in state funding. That deadline, extended in the past, has since been pushed to June 30, the end of the current state fiscal year. In all likelihood, the state funding has never been in doubt, but it provided a convenient stick to motivate both the commission and the contractors to expedite the project.
The county contract with BCPeabody requires the dredge to be substantially complete by Dec. 31. The county, however, appropriately reaffirmed Tuesday that it will withhold final payment to the contractor if residential complaints remain unresolved. That is the correct course of action and the absolute least to which the residents are entitled. A strong advocate/facilitator of public concerns would have been a more suitable response.
All of the residents will benefit from the completed project through safer access to the Gulf of Mexico via the deeper channel. Both residential property values and local commerce — 32 shrimp boats are docked at the Hernando Beach area and the marine industry including charters, boat dealers and marinas, accounts for 271 jobs — are expected to increase by the dredged channel's ability to accommodate larger vessels.
The projected boom, however, shouldn't come on the backs of the people living closest to the work site.