County: Debris-removal firm not performing well

A dispute over rates to remove Hurricane Irma debris has slowed progress, county commissioners say.
A dispute over rates to remove Hurricane Irma debris has slowed progress, county commissioners say.

Cleaning up the mess in the Florida Keys left by Hurricane Irma could be turning into a legal mess.

A developing feud over rate payments to debris-removal firms signed under emergency contracts by the Florida Department of Transportation have complicated Monroe County’s relationship with its contract hauler, AshBritt Inc.

“AshBritt is not performing under terms of the contract,” county Mayor George Neugent said Tuesday. “Under the contract, they were supposed to have 200 trucks on the ground in this kind of situation. I suspect they’re struggling to have 50.”

Commissioners planned to hold a special meeting last Friday on the debris-removal issue but canceled it Friday morning.

“We didn’t feel the need to hold it,” Neugent said. “Our position is that we’re maintaining the five-year contract that exists. We are not increasing [payment] rates.”

AshBritt chief executive Randy Perkins told commissioners at a Sept. 27 meeting that conflicting contracts and instructions from state managers “caused the absolute chaos and pandemonium in the Keys.”

“Every truck that came in was poached by one of the FDOT contractors,” Perkins said. “We’re paying a certain rate and [other contractors] can double or triple the rates we can pay.”

The office of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on Monday issued subpoenas to AshBritt and two other hauling firms under the state Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act as “part of an ongoing investigation into allegations that debris-removal contractors are either failing to perform at pre-storm contract rates, not performing until negotiating higher rates or are slow to perform under existing contracts.”

Gov. Rick Scott’s office and the Federal Emergency Management Agency cautioned the county not to renegotiate any contracts that could be billed to the state or federal government. “They consider that price-gouging that would screw the taxpayers,” Neugent said.

In a telephone call Tuesday, Perkins said, “We are performing at 100 percent based on the contract and plans put in place for before and after the hurricane.”

Perkins, who founded the Broward County firm that works nationally, declined further comment.

Commissioners at the Sept. 27 meeting said they were concerned about who would receive the bill for paying the firms hired by the state.

“Is the state paying?” asked Commissioner Danny Kolhage. “If not, this could amount to millions of local dollars.”

County Administrator Roman Gastesi estimated Tuesday that if the county pays the higher rates, it could add an additional $10 million for debris removal and disposal on county-owned roads.

“It’s a lot of moving parts,” Gastesi said, noting differing rates for collection, debris-site management and handling items like appliances. Commissioners will get an update at their next regular meeting, Oct. 18 at the Marathon Government Center.

“I know everybody is experience problems with debris. We’re running out of right of way to put it,” Neugent said.

“We are more proficient,” he said. “I think by the end of the week, things will be getting a lot better than they are now.”

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206