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Citizens' advice on City Hall not taken

(ran Beach edition)

A committee recommends public bidding on subcontracts for St. Pete Beach's new building, to no avail.

Commissioners on Wednesday set aside money for construction of a new City Hall, decided to get a professional outside estimate on its value, and listened to their attorney describe how their contract ensures the quality of the building.

But it's what they didn't do _ what they did not even consider _ that garnered the attention of the project's biggest critics.

A citizens committee created by the commission to review plans for the City Hall had recommended that the developer publicly bid the subcontracts for the building. The recommendation, originally made by the city-hired architect who designed the building and then endorsed by the committee, was not presented to the commission.

City Manager Carl Schwing, who took part in the meeting where the committee agreed on its recommendations, said the committee should have submitted a written report or made a presentation at Wednesday night's meeting.

Committee members said they thought the city manager was carrying their recommendations to the commission.

Some members of the citizens committee, already frustrated at how the commission has handled the decision to build a new City Hall on Corey Avenue, are questioning whether the members' work had any impact.

Schwing also had agreed at the citizens committee meeting to consider a traffic study for the intersection of Corey and Mangrove avenues, and committee members wonder why the commission is forging ahead with construction plans when such questions remain.

"You donate your time trying to do something that you think is in the best interest of the city, and your biggest obstacle is the city itself," said Ron Holehouse of the citizens commmittee.

Architect Mike Russell volunteered to write a contract amendment, but Schwing said he told him not to because the city would have to pay him for those services.

"The committee was looking to me to provide that language in the event that the commission thought that would be advisable," Russell said early last week, after the commission agenda was released with no mention of his proposal for publicly bidding the subcontracts. "The committee can only make recommendations."

At least one commissioner said he never knew of the committee's recommendation, and Schwing said he did not inform commissioners of the recommendation.

Schwing said he assumed they learned about the committee's meeting from a story in the Neighborhood Times Sept. 3. The committee's chairman, Jack Ohlhaber, is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Commissioner Rachel Crepeau mentioned at the commission meeting that the city should consider getting a professional estimate to ensure the proposed building is worth what the developer says it is.

Paul Skipper, who is donating land to the city for the building in exchange for a contract with the city that allows him to build it, said last week he would consider publicly bidding the subcontracts.

Since then, Schwing and city officials met with the developer, and Schwing said that Skipper preferred the idea of a professional estimate to the publicly bidded subcontracts. The city manager said Skipper had nothing to do with whether the committee's recommendation was pitched to the commission.

"He was fine with the cost estimate," Schwing said. Asked whether Skipper had problems with the idea of publicly bidding the subcontracts, Schwing said: "He had some concerns about that."

Commissioner Peter Blank said he thought it should be the developer's right to choose the subcontractors with which he is comfortable.

"Mr. Skipper uses tried-and-true subcontractors that he's used for years and years and years," Blank said. "He knows who the good subcontractors are. We know we're going to get good values."

Blank said he is especially supportive of the commission's plans because Skipper is a local builder who has an established reputation in St. Pete Beach.

"If we were having someone coming in from Orlando to do this building, I wouldn't be as comfortable," he said. "This is going to be his building. He lives in this town, and he's going to have to be able to walk into that building and have people say, "Boy, you built a heck of a building.' "

At Wednesday's meeting, City Attorney Jim Devito described the "extensive" contract put together between the city and the developer. He said the contract provides many protections for the city.

For example, when the developer first offered to donate the land, he wanted to build a box-shaped building for City Hall. The city refused the building and came up with a more complex design, which the developer accepted.

"They're not telling us what the price is; we're telling them what the price is," Devito said.

Among the most important protections is that the city can review the project throughout its construction and does not have to pay for the building if it is not satisfied with the quality.

"There's been a lot of public discussion, and there are some concerns about issues such as value and quality control, so we thought it would be an opportune time to review any of those issues," Devito said.