Greg Stanley, firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-263-4738 Published 2:16 p.m. ET Jan. 21, 2018 | Updated 5:21 p.m. ET Jan. 21, 2018
In the weeks after Hurricane Irma, as Collier County's utilities failed and sewage began backing up into streets and homes, the county needed thousands of gallons of sewage hauled away.
Now the county will pay the hauler, Southern Sanitation, about $270,000 less than it billed the county because of an invoice discrepancy found by the clerk's office.
After weeks of back and forth, the clerk's office, county commissioners and Southern Sanitation negotiated the settlement. The county will pay the company just over $2.5 million rather than upward of $2.8 million, or just over 90 percent of the bill.
The problem was that in the wake of the Sept. 10 disaster, neither Southern Sanitation nor the county utility department kept detailed enough records of when, where and for how long the company's trucks were at work hauling away the sewage, Clerk Dwight Brock said.
"We could find absolutely no proof where any of them worked," Brock said. "I think the county was complicit in this problem. They just didn’t provide us with anything that showed that anybody was there. We couldn’t establish where they went. We couldn't establish anything."
Southern Sanitation was hired for $300 an hour and used three of its trucks along with the trucks of 50 subcontractors to haul out the wastewater before power was restored to the county's sewage system.
The system, due largely to the flat terrain of the county, relies on hundreds of pumps to move all the waste flowing from thousands of drains, toilets and faucets to a treatment plant. With few generators to keep the pumps working, the massive power outage following the storm proved catastrophic for the system, and sewage collected in the pipes before overflowing back into homes and up through manholes in roads.
The contract, signed before the storm hit, required Southern Sanitation to keep a manifest of every load of sewage it hauled and to have that manifest signed off on by the county. Each invoice needed to include the date, time and location of the work, along with every load's manifest, according to the contract.
While the company did keep records, the records didn't include details of the loads and all the times and locations of the work.
Southern Sanitation representatives could not be reached for comment.
The work was done, said Commissioner Bill McDaniel, who helped negotiate the settled price. Southern Sanitation did not overbill the county, and nothing suggests that it didn't do the work it said it did, he said.
"It was absolutely documented, but there wasn't as good of documentation as the clerk perceived there should have been," McDaniel said. "Clerical errors were made, admittedly. They were able to go through those errors in a way that allowed the clerk to disburse the money and Southern to get paid."
The clerk has also questioned the bills submitted by a food vendor that charged as high as $37 a meal for county employees in the week after the storm — more than double what local food vendors charged.
After it was clear the county didn't have enough food, the county manager's office hired Ashbritt Inc., the company also hired to haul away debris, to truck in thousands of boxed meals from the east coast to feed employees.
Ashbritt charged $110 per person per day for breakfast, lunch and dinner along with a packaged snack and soda.
The county had a full kitchen set up in its Emergency Operations Center and had three local vendors under contract for $52 per person to provide the same number of meals that Ashbritt provided.
But those vendors couldn't meet the need, said Dan Rodriguez, deputy director of county utilities.
They couldn't get packaged meals to employees in Immokalee, Everglades City and scattered throughout the county.
"They met their limit, and they couldn't provide any more food," Rodriguez said. "We didn't have any alternatives."
The county's priorities at the time were getting generators set up and gas stations opened and not necessarily with shopping around for food prices, he said.
"It was guaranteed, and we could count on it," he said. "That's important. We needed guaranteed food for employees working 20-hour days."
The county paid Ashbritt $727,200 for 19,400 meals and assorted snacks. The lunches included a sandwich, a bag of chips, a piece of fruit and a "fresh baked desert."
But while the county was shipping in food several times a day from the other coast, the Sheriff's Office fired up grills for its employees, Brock said.
"The county spent a fortune while the Sheriff's Department just cooked some hot dogs and hamburgers and spent almost nothing," Brock said.
Commissioners said they were concerned by the cost but approved the expenditure after Brock raised questions about it at a recent public meeting.
"I'm not pleased about it, but you got to have food and you got to provide for your first responders," McDaniel said. "There are certain things you do in extraordinary times."
The county has to be better prepared during the next disaster so it isn't stuck negotiating a deal after the storm, Commissioner Penny Taylor said.
"Right after the hurricane there was no power or restaurants, and these were hot meals," Taylor said. "We have to learn from our mistakes, and we have to address this going forward."