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City Council, February 12

A decision on Spring –Fishburne project - at last
Construction freeboard raised to 2 feet
Marc Knapp

The large cost over run for the Spring – Fishburne US 17 drainage project became very apparent about two months ago. A proposed payment to the engineering consultant and approval for a construction contract for Phase 4 are items that have sat on the Ways and Means agendas for the last 3 if not 4 meetings. But voting was deferred until last night. And in our view, the Committee floundered for more than an hour over a decision we believe was simple and obvious, but sadly, hardly satisfactory.

Very broadly, the cost of the project so far exceeds $100 million. And the present estimates are that completion will cost about $40 million more than budgeted. Last night, the Ways and Means Committee was asked to approve a $51 million contract to complete the newly defined Phase 4. Part of Phase 5 will be included now in Phase 4 and will lead to the completion of a viable project, but not as originally planned. The constructed tunnel will siphon off surface stormwater but only by tidal action. A pump station will be constructed in Phase 5 but this is likely to be years away.

Despite the absence of pumps, completion of the amended Phase 4 will represent a big improvement over what presently exists – a 10 times multiple of the present capacity to disperse stormwater.

As well as the construction contract, Ways and Means was asked to approve a payment of $7.71 million to Davis and Floyd, the consultant to the City. This was a $6.8 million increase over what was budgeted.

Council members had heartburn over the big cost increase but more so as to what the impact would be on other drainage projects. To complete the amended Phase 4 contract, the City would need to draw on $18.4 million from the Drainage Fund, virtually the total balance. And as some Council members shrieked, what about all of the other drainage problems of the City? Some were very urgent and without funds, could not be addressed

The Mayor was sympathetic to the cries and said that Governor McMaster had indicated that he would try to help. Council member Waring asked that the contractor look for cost savings and that the City should look to divert funds allocated to projects that may be some time away from fruition. The Mayor also indicated that the City would try to access other sources such as the Accommodation Tax that presently cannot be used for stormwater mitigation.

To use the cliché, it was between a rock and a hard place. With over $100 million already sunk into the very necessary project, how could the City turn its back? The only path was to go forward. This was the decision of the Committee and Council, and in our view, it could have been made weeks ago.

I do not understand how such large cost increases could occur without the knowledge of the City, particularly the payout to the consultant. I said so in Citizens Participation. I also endorsed the comments of Council member White who wondered out loud as to the worth of studies by consultants. In my view, some of the recommendations could be made on the basis of common sense.
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Council member Lewis stopped the Ways and Means hearing in its tracks. Ways and Means precedes the Council hearing and typically lasts for half an hour or less. But last night it was into its second hour when the Council member asked that discussion be deferred and that the Council meeting should begin. The Council meeting was supposed to start at 5 pm regardless; a lot of people were inconvenienced in that they were attending only for the Council meeting. Council member Jackson supported the request and we think that many Council members were sympathetic. However, the support dissipated when the Mayor noted that there was little else on the Ways and Means agenda and discussion should soon end.

We think that Council member Lewis had a point. We’d also suggest that time limits be imposed on comments by Council members, and on hearings. Last night’s meeting began at about 4.30 pm and extended to nearly 10 pm. The endurance of some Councilmembers was stretched, but for the public, it was exhausted for nobody remained till the conclusion of the meeting.
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We thought the discussion on increasing the freeboard in construction from 1 foot to 2 feet above FEMA’s defined flood elevation was interesting. The Mayor noted that by making this requirement, the City will move up a notch in FEMA classification and residents of the City could see flood insurance premiums reduced by 20%. He also noted that the increase would bring the freeboard in line with surrounding jurisdictions as well as reduce the risk of flooding of new construction.

Not all Council members were in agreement. There may be costs savings but there may be unintended consequences. Council member Waring noted that there could be considerable hardship if there were a severe catastrophe, say from a hurricane. FEMA requires that if the cost of rehabilitation of a property exceeds 50% of the previous value, the property must meet FEMA and freeboard standards. Raising the freeboard will increase the cost of restoration and possibly beyond insurance cover and the means of many citizens. Council member Seekings did not like the idea that builders may decide to increase the site elevation and to the detriment to surrounding properties. Notwithstanding, Council approved the new free board standard.

Staff noted that the new FEMA flood maps for the areas should be available later this year and presumably will be used for determining insurance rates. But Council was warned that the data used in their compilation was gathered before the flood events of recent years. It was noted that many properties were removed from the Special Flood Hazard Areas but the inference was that perhaps they should not have been.
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The majority of Citizens who rose in Citizens Participation did so to applaud the resolution to be sent to Columbia urging the State Legislature to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The resolution was passed with little discussion, no dissention and much enthusiasm by both attendees and Ms.Vanessa Maybank, Clerk of Council. The exuberance of the Clerk, who normally is very formal, was noted by the Mayor.