The contractor of the storm shelters in Oakman, Townley and Pineywoods has not set a date for putting in the shelters — and, according to the project manager, wants about $10,000 more per site, …
The contractor of the storm shelters in Oakman, Townley and Pineywoods has not set a date for putting in the shelters — and, according to the project manager, wants about $10,000 more per site, even though he won a low bid contract and is running out of time before the grant could be lost.
County Engineer Mike Short said Wednesday he wasn't contacted that the desire for more money was even an issue. He said confusion over paperwork after the death of one county official might hamper any ability the county would have to sue over the matter.
Brent Mitchell of Safe-T-Shelter in Hartselle, which won the low bid, could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday, but an employee of the company relayed word on Wednesday that he was referring comment to Lee Helms.
Helms, a former state Alabama Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director who now owns Lee Helms Associates in Clanton, said Wednesday he is the project manager and helped write the grant for the Federal Emergency Management Agency hazardous mitigation project.
Helms noted the initial delays in the project that have been stated earlier. Rains and illness in the staff at Safe-T-Shelter had created delays. More delays were created by the death of then-Walker County E-911 Director Roger Wilson in July 2017, as Wilson was in charge of shelter projects for the county. That responsibility was later shifted to Regina Myers, the coordinator of the Walker County Emergency Management Agency, with help from Short.
Officials said a shelter can go up in a month. However, county officials have been frustrated that the dirt pads are ready for concrete pads and shelters, but they have not heard from Safe-T-Shelter.
Helms, who said his role is to work between the contractor and the county government, noted he does not work for Mitchell. Short said Wednesday that the county's contract is actually with Helms. "Safe-T-Shelter is really just the provider," he said.
"About six months ago, maybe a little longer than that ... (Mitchell) told them he was going to be ready in about 30 days to pour the concrete," Helms said. "To be totally honest with you, he's been behind on every project that I've been project manager on in the last three years. I know he had some personnel problems and illness problems and things of that nature with his crews.
"But it is his responsibility, once we tell him to proceed, to set a date and proceed, and he has not done that yet."
Asked about whether it is possible to go on to another bidder, Helms said, "The options are not good, because he bid that project at the time when materials and things of that nature were not as expensive as they are now. He made a bid on it and he is supposed to live up to that bid. He had been talking to me about asking local government for more money because FEMA and the state EMA cannot give him anymore money for the project. It is already awarded in that amount."
Every time the project is delayed by Mitchell, Helms has to ask for periods of extension, he said, so that available funds from FEMA and the state EMA can be kept.
"It is getting to the point now that they could withdraw the funding for those projects if he does not proceed and get started. They only allow you to extend that process a few times. I've seen it extended as much as a year, but that was when there were a lot more of those units being installed all over the state," he said.
He later said, "I would say probably if we don't get going and do it in the next six to nine months, we're going to be in jeopardy of losing the grant."
According to the price of materials such as steel concrete, "he tells me he needs about $10,000 a site extra," he said. With three sites, that comes to $30,000.
Helms noted he doesn't like to "sit" on such projects, and that he told Mitchell to give him numbers from the day he bid the project to today about the costs of the materials. With those figures, Helms said officials might could go to the legislative delegation or local government.
"They might meet you halfway, since that was a pretty low bid at the time," he recalled telling Mitchell.
However, he noted Mitchell not only had won the bid, but he had told local officials how to restructure the dirt pads, which was done. "At that point, he was to give them a date that he was coming back, and so he just hasn't done it," he said. "Where we are at is that he needs to come back and pour those concrete pads, and he doesn't want to do it because he said he is going to lose money on it."
He added Mitchell "is not budging because he is going lose money on the project. I said, 'Yes, but you bid that project.' But he is wanting to get some help from local government to cover the increased cost from the time he was awarded that contract to now. But the fact is he could have been there earlier."
Added to the frustration was the fact of Wilson's death. "After losing Roger, we lost some time because we didn't have anyone to step in there and help us for a while," he said.
Myers said Wednesday that a date for Safe-T-Shelter to come back was given in July, after dirt pads were reformed to the company's specifications, and county officials have not heard back since.
Short said the county is "standing here with no visible way of enforcing things. Because we can't put our hands on some of the things we're supposed to have, I don't even know if we can take them to court." He said the records are probably somewhere, but since Wilson's death officials have been at "a severe disadvantage" as some of those records have not be discovered.
"I'm not putting the blame on him. I'm just telling you the fact is that we don't have the records that I feel like we need to twist this guy's arm," he said, saying he wish he had Wilson around to guide county officials. "It's just a bad situation."
The lack of records makes it difficult to know dates of approval and deadlines, Short indicated. He also noted shelters are being "dominoed" into other projects over the past four years, making it difficult to know when the project started. "I think this is an add-on portion of projects we already had," he said.
He said county attorney Richard Fikes has been writing emails and letters on the county's behalf to Safe-T-Shelter for four to six weeks, "and he hasn't gotten a very good feeling about any of it." He said Myers has talked to Helms' wife, who is also part of Lee Helms Associates.
"We have been in contact, but I don't feel that has done us very much good, either," Short said.
"We've actually had someone to go up to (Mitchell's) factory and talk to him face-to-face," Short said.
As for the possibility of paying the extra money, Short said, "This is the first time I've heard about additional money." Helms said he is not interested in trying to find much money on only "a hope and a promise." He did say coming up with more figures, as Helms said he instructed Mitchell, makes more sense.
He said he would approach lawyers to discuss about extra funding to be ready for an answer. "If we can prove there has been an increase (in costs) of that much since the contract was signed, I can see that as being an valid argument," he said.
Asked if the county feels somewhat fooled or cheated in the process, Short said, "Absolutely. I don't know how else to do it when someone telling you, 'Hey, get those pads ready and I'll be there.' We've done them for the second time, and we still haven't seen any movement."