Tropical storms Irene and Lee dropped enough water on Schoharie County to permanently alter the shape of many stream beds, but 31 months later, an ambitious project to rebuild 50,000 feet of bank along four streams still hasn’t begun and may cost $2.6 million more than anticipated.
In the aftermath of the flood, the National Resources Conservation Service agreed to fund 75 percent of construction costs for what was then estimated to be a $23 million stream restoration project along the Little Schoharie Creek, the Line Creek, the Platter Kill and a tributary off Dave Brown Mountain Road.
The idea was to essentially flood-proof the streams, preventing the same fast flows that caused erosion during Irene. With that in mind, swift action was originally intended, but the project ran into a number of delays.
After the NRCS offered its 75 percent, work was delayed as the county searched for a way to pay the other 25 percent. Eventually the state agreed to kick in $5.3 million. Contractors placed bids, and engineering company AECOM landed the job in late 2012 with a bid that projected $17 million in construction work by its subcontractors and a 15 percent planning and engineering fee for itself.
AECOM originally planned to complete the project in January 2014, before the spring thaw. Land owners had a different idea. The vast majority of the damaged streams run through private property, so AECOM had to get permission from residents to access the waterways. By late 2013, about 20 of them were still blocking the work.
Three weeks ago, contractors were poised to begin the project, waiting on permission from just two land owners when the most recent delay brought the whole thing to a grinding halt.
“We thought the project was 100 percent funded by state and federal dollars,” said County Treasurer Bill Cherry. “Then Alicia Terry came into my office and said we had a shortfall.”
Schoharie County Planning Director Alicia Terry is running the project from the county side. Cherry said she came to him recommending an amendment to the AECOM contract, giving it $2.6 million more than originally expected. A resolution approved by the county board in December of 2012 agreed to pay AECOM 15 percent of the total stream bank construction cost. Cherry said that’s roughly $3 million.
“But recently they said they couldn’t possibly do it for that amount of money,” he said.
Since the shortfall is in the engineering line item, the state and federal dollars won’t cover an additional $2.6 million and county taxpayers could be on the hook.
Cherry and a few other county officials met last week with U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, state Sen. James Seward and Assemblyman Pete Lopez along with NRCS staff to straighten things out. Cherry said Gibson suggested NRCS fund the $2.6 million in unexpected engineering costs as it promised to do with construction.
“But it doesn’t look hopeful,” Cherry said.
Now, with spring at hand and snow melting, work won’t begin until the county board makes some decision about how to move forward. Based upon construction seasons, if work doesn’t begin by May, the whole project could be delayed another year.
According to Cherry, the funding gap is essentially a contractual problem. With AECOM asking the county for an extra $2.6 million for work not covered by the state and federal money, Cherry had a look at the contract AECOM and the county actually signed.
“It bore no resemblance to what the county approved,” he said, explaining that the terms the county approved set a firm 15 percent fee, while the actual final contract set 15 percent as a starting point.
Terry has a different perspective on the issue.
“This is collective amnesia,” she said.
Even in late 2012 when AECOM was hired, she said the Board of Supervisors was, or should have been, aware of a $1.3 million county share.
“In hindsight, communication could have been clearer,” she said.
In the intervening period, the expected $1.3 million county share has doubled, she said, through unforeseen work done by AECOM. The firm helped get construction permission from land owners, which was not part of the original agreement, and also did some redesign work.
In order to move the project forward, the county might have to round up $2.6 million. With the county’s current economic climate, Cherry said raising the money will involve breaking the state’s property tax levy cap for many years to come.
Instead, Cherry hopes to negotiate with AECOM.
“The only fair thing at this point,” he said, “is for AECOM to do the job for what the board approved.”
AECOM officials did not return calls for comment for this story.