Debris-hauling firm goes to court over storm deal

Debris piles like this one in the Upper Keys are getting smaller, but not as quickly as most people want.
Debris piles like this one in the Upper Keys are getting smaller, but not as quickly as most people want.

A week after AshBritt Inc.’s chairman said the storm-recovery firm would not sue Monroe County, Ashbritt sued Monroe County.

Randy Jenkins, chairman of AshBritt, made the statement “We are not suing you, can you understand that?” at an Oct. 18 meeting of the Monroe County Commission, where four of the five county board members voted to say that AshBritt was “not in default” of its Hurricane Irma contract.

Things changed drastically in a matter of days. Now AshBritt wants to either renegotiate its contract or just stop working in the Lower Keys.

By Tuesday, County Attorney Bob Shillinger wrote to Ashbritt’s lawyer in Monroe County, “If AshBritt fails to perform now as instructed, the county would have no choice but to declare AshBritt in default of our agreement.”

The feud over debris removal from the Florida Keys erupted when the Florida Department of Transportation authorized emergency contracts for other waste-hauling firms to remove trash and vegetation after Hurricane Irma struck the Keys as a Category 4 on Sept. 10.

AshBritt, which had a standing contract in place with Monroe County to provide debris removal at set rates, protested that firms signed by DOT were being paid vastly higher rates than AshBritt’s deal with the county.

As a result, many of AshBritt’s subcontractors reportedly jumped ship to work in the Keys at the higher rates. Replacement trucks were hard to find because of Hurricane Harvey and other storms, the company says.

“With AshBritt having difficulties finding resources to fulfill the contract after Hurricane Irma struck on Sept. 10, Monroe County accepted the assistance of the Florida Department of Transportation,” says a Monroe County summary released Friday.

Federal and state officials warned Monroe County that it would not reimburse storm expenses if it paid AshBritt higher rates than listed in the pre-existing contract. Jenkins was not pleased.

“To illustrate the significant disruption in the market caused by the DOT’s emergency procurement, DOT agreed to prices of $969.00 and $250.00 respectively for the two contractors who went to work in the county after Irma for removal of white goods (refrigerators/freezers, etc.) to the temporary debris management sites,” wrote AshBritt attorney Barton Smith. “In the [prior] contracts that the DOT ignored, the average price for removal of white goods to the temporary debris management sites, including all six contractors, was $98.00.”

“During this time, AshBritt’s ability to perform its duties to the county were substantially interfered with and impeded. This resulted in the inability of AshBritt to obtain the necessary trucks and equipment to continue maximum performance,” says the company’s complaint.

An uneasy truce negotiated by the county authorized AshBritt to work in unincorporated Upper Keys areas, along with a Lower Keys area to mile marker 16. DOT contractors were assigned from marker 16 to marker 40.

Just days after the Oct. 18 commission meeting, the DOT said was ending its emergency contracts in the Keys effective Oct. 27.

When county officials advised AshBritt that the company would have to finish cleaning the area between markers 16 and 40, and do it at the pre-storm contract rates, AshBritt filed its complaint seeking declaratory relief.

Monroe County may seek a new contractor to complete debris removal from marker 16 to marker, the county statement says.

County Engineer Judity Clarke said in the statement, “AshBritt has left the county no choice but to find an alternative contractor. But trucks continue to work seven days a week in the county. We have removed a tremendous amount of debris, approaching 1 million cubic yards, in a short time.”

“Our main priority is to ensure that hurricane debris is removed from all of unincorporated Monroe County as quickly as possible and without delays,” County Administrator Roman Gastesi said. “Our residents have been through some tough times and removing the debris is a major part of our recovery and rebuilding.”