PORT RICHEY — Months ago, Port Richey city officials balked at a bid for their long-awaited dredging project to improve boating on two channels. When only one bid came in and it was higher than the estimate, they rejected it.
“I believed then that we needed to get dredges in the water,” Mayor Scott Tremblay said last week as the City Council, sitting as the community redevelopment agency, considered two new bids. Tremblay encouraged approval of the low bid.
City council members still questioned the cost, which was higher than before. They also had specific concerns about what was included in the price. The low bid of $816,000 by Grubbs Emergency Services was half the cost proposed by the other bidder.
An engineer hired by the city reviewed the bids. The council gave tentative approval, and they asked city manager John Dudte to make doubly sure everything was in order.
Dudte has only been on the job for two months, coming to Port Richey from Kansas. While he might not have known much about Grubbs Emergency Services, a company of John G. “Gary” Grubbs, that name is known to locals.
Grubbs has numerous business interests — he serves as the sole director of Sun West Acquisition Corp., the owner of property at the county’s northwestern corner adjacent to the county’s Sun West Park, which was all originally owned by the corporation. His other businesses range from a food truck to a mining operation.
Grubbs is also involved in several intertwined and unresolved civil lawsuits with business partners stretching from Pinellas County to Hernando County. One charged that Grubbs used assets of Sun West Acquisition Corp. as his “personal piggy bank.” Grubbs countered with a suit claiming the partners siphoned money away and attempted to claim full ownership of the Sun West properties.
Over the years, Grubbs has also grappled with millions of dollars in federal tax liens as well as issues with sales taxes and local property tax payments.
Grubbs Emergency Services ran into controversy in Hernando County. In 2017, Grubbs was the primary contractor in charge of clearing debris after Hurricane Irma. Hernando county commissioners publicly blasted him for falling down on that job. They said that Grubbs pulled crews from Hernando to send to south Florida where the reimbursement rates were higher, leaving Hernando residents with tree branches, brush and trash in their yards weeks longer than necessary.
Grubbs also has a working relationship with another local figure who Port Richey officials have tussled with in the past: Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano.
Mariano is an enthusiastic advocate for dredging all along Pasco County’s coastline, for improvements at the Sun West Park and for development that has been planned at the Sun West property.
Grubbs has also donated to Mariano’s various reelection campaigns, giving $4,500 in donations since 2012 under his own name, under Grubbs Emergency Services and under Sun West Acquisition Corp.
Port Richey’s past leadership directly blamed Mariano for the bill filed by his daughter, state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, in 2019 which sought to disband the city in the wake of the arrests of former mayor Dale Massad and his successor, Terrance Rowe. Then-Port Richey city manager Vincent Lupo called the bill a “power play” by Jack Mariano to take control over the dredging projects in the city.
Port Richey has sparred with him in the past over the current dredging project.
A year ago, Mariano unsuccessfully pushed for Port Richey to expand dredging to five residential canals to mitigate flooding, raise property values, increase water quality and reduce the threat of storm surge. That expansion could also have allowed the city to leverage additional funds from other agencies, Mariano argued.
At the time, Tremblay, the Port Richey mayor, opposed the expansion. He said it was a benefit for those living along the canals, while the core project benefited the public, launching their boats from Nick’s Park.
Grubbs told the Times that the city should act based solely on his bid and his experience. He said he has been trying to reach city officials because he hasn’t heard anything about the status of the bid.
“I was the low bidder. I was half the price. I’m in the mining business. I dig earth every day. That’s what I do,” he said. “I’ve got the experience for what it takes to perform that project.”
He said he has resolved his tax issues and that “the lawsuits are still unresolved but that has nothing to do with my ability to perform.”
City Manager Dudte said that, given the instruction from City Council, he is fully vetting the Grubbs contract. That will include another close look by the city’s engineer as well as a review by the city attorney.
Dudte said the cost, which is again over the previous estimate of about $600,000, warrants a full examination. Since the city also hopes to use funds from the Restore Act, which is the settlement money from the BP oil spill, the job will also require the scrutiny of the U.S. Treasury making it critical that everything is in order.
Dudte said he was also aware of the other issues involving Grubbs.
“I know there are questions,” he said. “I can read the public history.”
Times staff writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.