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East Lake, builder may go to court

The fire district says it fired Ron Morgan because his work on Station 56 was late and shoddy. He says he's been falsely accused.

Fire Station 56 stands on East Lake Road, a sentinel of public safety and a pink stuccoed monument to frustration.

Fire officials and the station's builder have bickered for more than a year over everything from the color of the caulking in the cabinets to what side of the bathroom stalls the toilet paper rolls should hang from.

After threatening for months, the East Lake Fire Commission fired builder Ron Morgan last week, claiming he was responsible for shoddy work and numerous delays at the $752,000 station.

But rather than end the argument, the move is likely to land all the parties in court.

Commissioners say they will not pay Morgan the last $78,000 they owe him. Instead, they plan to use that money to hire another contractor to finish a few small jobs at the station, which opened in May, a year behind schedule.

Morgan contends that he has done everything he was asked to do on the station and that the fire district is making unreasonable demands.

"They've been in the building for three months, and they want to terminate us?" he said. "Let them terminate us. We're ready to go to court."

Commissioners are not backing down. They originally voted in March to fire Morgan but delayed that decision after Morgan said he could finish the station by the end of April.

"At this particular point, I don't give a damn if he takes us to court," said fire Commissioner Chuck Schult. "I feel like I'm sitting on a board being made a fool of by this guy, and it's time to stop."

The fire district has accused Morgan Construction of Dunedin of not hiring enough qualified contractors to do the job, failing to pay all the subcontractors it did hire and working at a snail's pace on the station, which is needed to handle emergencies in the south end of the 33-square-mile district.

Morgan has charged that the department and its architect made repeated, last-minute changes to the construction plans and often sent payments, which he uses to pay subcontractors, more than a month late.

Fire Chief Ron Taylor said the department sent one payment late in early 1998. That mistake and other short delays caused by the department could not be responsible for the project falling a year behind schedule, Taylor said.

"We admitted to the areas that were shame on us," he said. "But certainly we didn't create the type of delays we're looking at."

A tight labor market made it difficult to attract workers to the site, Morgan said. He also said he waited several months for the district and its architect, David L. Wallace & Associates, to approve updated drawings and construction changes for the station. It took fire commissioners four different meetings to decide on a color for the building, he said.

The district also changed five times the project's punch list, which is supposed to be a final checklist of items that need to be accomplished at the site, Morgan said. Morgan, and therefore his contractors, cannot get paid until the punch list is complete.

"It's very easy to pick on the contractor because the owner feels he's always right," Morgan said. "I can't pay the subcontractors because they (the district) owe me money. It's hard to finish a project when the owner doesn't pay."

Taylor said the air conditioning that cools the firefighters' sleeping quarters stopped working this week. Some of them have been sleeping in the TV room's reclining chairs at night, he said. The system also leaks.

District officials also said the bathroom stalls need to be redone because they were not installed correctly. Morgan disputes that.

"I'm not afraid to bring anybody out here," he said after showing a Times reporter around the station last week. "Walk the job and show me any product that's not a quality product. Mechanically, electrically and plumbing-wise, this building is doing what it was designed to do."