Debris cleanup delayed as investigation continues

“I’m scared of snakes and there are young kids here who play outside and I don’t understand why it’s been three months,” said Terry Kemp as she described the mounds of debris still lining the street near her home on Grant Avenue.

That statement has been repeated by several concerned Immokalee residents since hurricane Irma passed through the area in September.

Debris lines Grant Avenue in Immokalee as the contractor hired to collect it takes a break. (Submitted photo/Travis Anderson)

AshBritt, Inc., the company chosen by Collier County Commissioners to cleanup hurricane debris, has been the focus of criticism since the cleanup process began.

In early October, Attorney General Pam Bondi served AshBritt with a subpoena as part of the State’s investigation into allegations that the debris removal company was failing to perform at pre-storm contract rates, not performing until negotiating a higher rate, or slow to perform under the existing contract.

While there has been no word as to the status of that investigation, local residents are understandably upset that they must still live with hurricane debris that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

We took Kemp’s concern to Collier County’s Public Utilities Department who said that there is no set timeline for when AshBritt will collect hurricane debris on any given street in Immokalee, but they did say that the collection process is believed to continue well into 2018.

Cross-checking information obtained by Collier County Public Utilities Department and AshBritt, Inc., it appears that as of mid-December, most streets in Immokalee have only been checked once by the company.

What’s even more disturbing is that there are a number of areas that haven’t even been checked yet. According to the real-time map provided by the County, areas off of New Market Road along with places within Farm Worker Village, Arrowhead Reserve, Jubilation, Faith Landing, and Garden Lake haven’t even been checked.

In digging through County records, it appears that Collier County Commissioners not only paid AshBritt for their debris cleanup services, but they also paid for meal preparation and delivery of those meals to Building W at the Collier County Government Complex in Naples for first responders and others working during the storm. In fact, County leaders approved two payments to AshBritt totaling $680,262 specifically for meal preparation and transportation since hurricane Irma made landfall.

It appears that the decision to contract this work to AshBritt was made due to a lack of communication with local vendors who were previously identified as sources who could provide those food services.

The Collier County BCC Executive Summary dated December 12, 2017 shows that AshBritt attempted to mark-up their food service cost by 23 percent. County staff then negotiated that mark-up down to 15 percent cutting the cost by $45,000. Of course, that 15 percent rate was actually pre-determined in the Executive Summary AshBritt submitted with their original proposal. Hence, AshBritt knowingly asked for a rate eight percent above their own proposal.

The Collier County Clerk of Court’s Office raised issue with the amount AshBritt was asking for citing that the stated cost of $680,000 was actually three times the amount other local vendors would have charged regardless of whether or not the County would be partially reimbursed by FEMA.

Commissioner McDaniel said that it was a reasonable thought that the County would have to pay to move meals in from the east coast. Collier County Commissioners unanimously voted in favor of paying AshBritt for the final food service invoice.

However, the mark-up in cost that AshBritt proposed was well above industry standards for food preparation and delivery leaving some to wonder what the mark-up costs for storm debris collection is and whether their rates were properly negotiated as well.

This mark-up is en example of why Attorney General Pam Bondi initiated the investigation into AshBritt’s alleged business practices during hurricane Irma. Although the investigation was started in October, Collier County Commissioners agreed in December to pay AshBritt for their food delivery service during and immediately after hurricane Irma passed through the area.

On Friday, December 23, 2017, an attempt was made to contact representatives at the Debris Management Site located at 920 New Harvest Road East where tree limbs are converted into mulch. Unfortunately, AshBritt employees could not be found and the site was left unsecured. Although there are signs posted prohibiting trespassers from entering the property, one person was found to be joyriding on the property on a small motorcycle.

On Tuesday, December 26, 2017 Matt Gierden, Vice President of AshBritt said that the site Debris Management Site in Immokalee may not be secure as there is no expectation that someone would enter the site and remove mulch or debris. He was unaware that someone was using the site for joyriding.

Gierden also said that residents of Immokalee should see the final debris collection take place after January 3, 2018 once staff returns from the holiday break.

When asked about the current status of the investigation spearheaded by the Attorney General’s Office, Gierden said that he would have to defer that question to his boss but said that there has never been any sort of mark-up in costs from AshBritt in Collier County. We now know that’s not exactly accurate based on county documents.

For now, taxpayers are on the hook for meal delivery to Collier County in addition to an untold amount for debris collection.

Travis can be reached at ibnews@newszap.com

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