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Lake City-Columbia County Utility Easment Issues Spill Into County Roadway: It Was Not Pretty

Photos of Kevin Kirby and Paul Dyal with roadway double yellow line inbetween. Caption: County claims Lake City crossed the double line on City wastewater utility expansion project
Columbia County Observer photo and graphic

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – This past Thursday’s County 5 meeting wrapped up its printed agenda in a world record thirty-eight minutes. It looked like everyone was going home early. Then, The 5 decided to have an impromptu mowing workshop and a discussion about a City Utility Project which included a contractor cutting up County roads.

This story is about a City-County utility easment issue concerning the digging up County roads and not doing the job according to the County issued utility permit(s), FDOT best practices, and the City or its contractor or engineers making sure the projects are done safely and according to acceptable engineering standards.

The Project: I-75 SR-47 Interchange Wastewater Improvement

On October 16, 2021, there was a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site of two future lift stations and other future improvements. The who’s who of the City, County, Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD), FL DEP, and Representative Brannon’s Office were in attendance.

Jones Edmunds’ engineer Jamie Bell explained the project.

Engineer Jamie Bell at the controls of a giant excavator
Engineer Jamie Bell at the controls of a giant excavator at the groundbreaking. In the foreground are Lake City Utility personnel.

She said the project had been under development for at least six years and was funded by the SRWMD -- DEP ($1.7 mil) and a legislative appropriation ($1 mil)

Ms. Bell said, “Applications for money began in 2015… It’s been a long time coming.”

Ms. Bell gave some technical details of the wastewater project: 2 lift stations; 18,000 ft. of pipe will have to be buried in the ground; the connection of 35 septic systems, primarily commercial and industrial, to be connected to Lake City's sewer system.

Lake City’s Mayor Steve Witt said it was “great collaboration.”

Utility Director Paul Dyal said, “This project’s been a long time in the making…without the cooperation of different agencies, the project couldn’t take place. It is a collective effort.”

Then-Interim City Manager Mike Williams said, “This is good. We’re working collectively together.”

Everybody had their photo taken – it is what is done at these events – and then they went home or back to work.

Usually, that would have been the end of it, but this is Columbia County.

Thursday, May 5, The County 5 Goes Into Overtime

After the County Commission (County 5 or The 5) faux mowing workshop and Chairman Hollingsworth blowing off citizens' comments, Commissioner Rocky Ford brought up the I-75 SR-47 Interchange Wastewater Improvement Project issues.

Everyone wasn’t all smiles this time.

Commissioner Rocky Ford
Commissioner Rocky Ford   (file)

Commissioner Ford said the City is cutting the County roads, adding, “I know you [Assistant County Manager and the head of public works, Kevin Kirby] went out there and had some issues. How do we address that...? The contractor wasn’t getting density back on our roads…. If that road is not compacted properly, you are going to have issues. In a year from now we’re going to have an issue with a bad dip right there.”

Mr. Kirby told The 5 he reviews and signs off on all County utility permits before they come to the County 5 for final approval.

Mr. Kirby said he went to the job site and what he found was not good.

What Was Happening?

Mr. Kirby explained that he was getting calls from the business owners on Ring Court. "They said, 'What are you all doing out here?' We're not doin' anything. They just assumed it's us because it's a County Road. 'They're stopping traffic with a bucket of a backhoe; zero cones; zero MOT.”

Translation: Construction had begun on the wastewater upgrades. The County road was cut across so that pipe could be laid, and driveways and other spots were being excavated for the installation of the wastewater pipes. Those that called Mr. Kirby thought the County was doing the construction or responsible for the construction.

Maintenance of Traffic (MOT) photo
This is what MOT looks like. There was no MOT at the City's wastewater treatment project. Read more about MOT safety here.

“MOT” means maintenance of traffic. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has established a Maintenance of Traffic (MOT) program. The MOT program includes establishing procedures, standards, and work zone traffic control specifications. It is a safety thing which is practiced all throughout America and is also regulated by OSHA.

Mr. Kirby explained that the City's contractor was doing the work.

Mr. Kirby said that after emails back and forth to and from the City, “I finally called the contractor. He told me to kick rocks.”

“I got a report Tuesday that none of it [the correct compaction tests] had been done.”

Chairman Hollingsworth asked who was responsible.

Giant backhoe in County roadway
Backhoe on the County road. This is not your garden variety backhoe.     Photo via Kevin Kirby, Columbia County

Mr. Kirby answered, “The contractor was doing what a contractor does, without anybody looking after him. It is the contractor’s responsibility to follow specs and rules… Reasonable people say, ‘Thank you for bringing it to my attention.’”

County Attorney Joel Foreman weighed in, “Using that backhoe and swingin’ it out – potentially – it’s a deadly situation.”

Commissioner Ford said the County needed “to set some kind of policy for the future.”

Mr. Kirby responded, “That’s a brand new mechanism in the game.”

After conversation about hiring an outside firm to do Construction, Engineering, and Inspection (CEI) inspections, County Manager Kraus said, “He’s [Kirby] been doing this for years with the City and everybody else. This is the first time this has really become an issue.”

Mr. Kirby reiterated that the City was not doing “what it promised to do.”

What Happened – Who Is Responsible?

On Friday (May 6), your reporter reached out to Commissioner Rocky Ford, Assistant City Manager, and acknowledged road expert Kevin Kirby, Engineer Jamie Bell, the face of Jones Edmonds in Columbia County, and Lake City's Interim City Manager Paul Dyal.

Commissioner Rocky Ford, who has been digging holes and laying pipe his whole life, narrowed down the wastewater pipe installation issue.

Mr. Ford explained the contractor did a cut across a county road. There was no safety road crew, the folks with signs directing traffic, and no safety road signs. This is called Maintenance of Traffic (MOT).

Mr. Ford explained the state regulations require filling the cut, after it is excavated, in 12-inch vertical increments and measuring the amount of compaction to make sure it meets the specifications. Mr. Ford said when you cut across a county road and then fill the hole, you have to have compaction tests. Compaction tests make sure the dirt in the cut is compacted so that the area above the cut doesn't sink.

Your reporter followed up with Mr. Kirby, a road expert, a fact that his critics acknowledge.

Kevin Kirby: Columbia County, FL, asstistant county manager
Kevin Kirby    (file)

Your reporter asked, "You went out there and saw what was happening with your own eyeballs?"

Mr. Kirby answered, “Oh yeah.”

Mr. Kirby said he saw what was going on, and "it came to my attention that the work was not being done to specifications."

Mr. Kirby said he told them not to pave it. “Now, they are going to have to do it over.”

Mr. Kirby said, “An excavator is sitting on the pavement with no mats under it. No MOT. No cones. A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Mr. Kirby said that if Interim City Manager Paul Dyal hadn’t argued with him, but instead did his job, “We wouldn’t be talkin’ about any of this.”

Mr. Kirby concluded, “When Paul [Dyal] told me to substantiate myself, I said, ‘I’ll substantiate myself, we’ll just shut the damn job down.”

Interim City Manager Paul Dyal

Your reporter spoke with Interim Lake City City Manager Paul Dyal on Friday morning.

Paul Dyal at a more relaxed time at the groundbreaking of the Wastewater Treatment Project in October 2021.
Paul Dyal at a more relaxed time at the groundbreaking of the Wastewater Treatment Project in October 2021.

Mr. Dyal has been under increasing amounts of stress since before the departure of City Manager Joe Helfenberger in July of 2021.

Because the City Council cannot find a city manager, Mr. Dyal, the City's utility director, has been tapped as interim manager. He is the only one in the City government who is capable of doing the job. It is a job he resigned from twice, but because of the downward spiral of Mayor Steve Witt and the City Council, and Mr. Dyal’s claimed loyalty to the City, it is a job he continues to do.

Mr. Dyal still plays a significant role in utility operations. The City Utility department has about 80 employees, a $20 mil dollar budget, and thousands of customers, commercial and residential, both in the City and the County.

The stress is clearly getting to Mr. Dyal.

Your reporter spoke with Mr. Dyal about the recent email chain. Mr. Dyal said he had a copy.

Your reporter asked Mr. Dyal about the contractor equipment in the County road.

Mr. Dyal said the County exaggerated.

Your reporter asked Mr. Dyal about the lack of compaction tests.

Mr. Dyal said, "The County never required them before."

Part II - The email chain
(skip the email chain for now; go to Pt-III: So What's the Problem)
Ring Court – Where the Action is Taking Place: the email chain is not pretty

Photo-graphic of email chain
Photo: Gerd Altman via Pixabay

The email chain between the City and County regarding Ring Court and the City Wastewater Construction Project began on April 21, 1:26 pm, when the County’s Construction Engineering Inspector (CEI) visited Ring Court.

CEI Kyle Markham sent an email to the County and City in which he expressed his concerns about the work being done by subcontractor RPI at the Ring Ct. job site. He mentioned heavy construction equipment on the roadway, dirt being put on the road within the travel lane without lane closures, no cones (those red things), and no MOT [nobody directing traffic].

CEI Markham recommended the "contractor get a broom and get the road swept off as soon as possible."

On April 22, 9:10 am, Assistant County Manager Kirby emailed CEI Markham, "Please advise if my assistance is needed.”

Twenty-eight minutes later, the City's Acting Director of Utilities Brian Scott emailed Mr. Kirby and the engineers from Jones Edmunds: "We will let engineers know, as far as pavement, we were told by the county manager they are going to repave the roadway after construction is done I have copied them in this email.”

The email chain picked up again three days later, on April 25, 7:10 am. Mr. Kirby sent an email to Utility Director Scott and the engineers at Jones Edmunds: "For the hundredth time -This road is not funded for paving at this time. Who is CEI for this project?”

At 11:10 am, the County's CEI (Construction Engineering Inspector) Kyle Markham asked the City, "who is over inspection on this job?" CEI Markham was concerned about the testing of the density of the backfill. (That is the dirt that goes around and on top of the pipe placed in the ground.)

Widget-link to Jones Edmunds detail drawingCEI Markham was also concerned that the project would be paved the next day "where the density [check] is needed.”

On April 26, 8:29 am, Mr. Kirby sent an email to Interim City Manager Paul Dyal, the City’s Engineers, Mr. Scott, and the County Manager:  "Paul, I have substantiated myself at this point. Kyle, if the operation continues as is, shut the project down."

It appears there was some interaction between Mr. Kirby and Mr. Dyal before the email was sent.

Almost an hour later, Mr. Dyal responded to Mr. Kirby. This email seems to be the email that got Mr. Kirby and the County sideways: "LOL… Now that's funny! Who knew you had a sense of humor!"

Mr. Kirby was not amused; two-and-a-half hours later, he emailed Jones Edmunds and everyone else.

Mr. Kirby mentioned he tried to contact Mr. Dyal by phone and was unsuccessful.

Mr. Kirby again listed the dangers on the job site and continued: “I advised the contractor (which is not my job) that he is proceeding at his own risk. Currently, paving operations are taking place with only [a] density test on lime rock. [This is the area directly under the asphalt]  No density test has been taken on embankment backfill and subgrade backfill [the fill around the pipe]. I would strongly recommend whoever (if anyone) gets a handle on this situation.”

Mr. Dyal responded via email to Mr. Kirby: “Mr. Kirby, I was in a meeting until Noon, sorry I missed your call. I apologize you had to do something (that wasn’t your job), appreciate all your help. While I know I’m not as capable and knowledgeable as yourself, I will do my best to get a handle on this situation.”

Mr. Kirby emailed back, “I will look forward to receiving all necessary density reports (post the asphalt being placed before density tests were taken.) I think it is now time to focus our energy on the quality of the project now that I have your attention on the safety aspect."

The final email on April 26 appeared to end the issue.

Mr. Dyal wrote: Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention! It always amazes me at how well we can all work together for a common cause, have a quality and safe construction project, which serves the public interest as the end result of our working collaboratively.

It didn’t.

Three Days Later

On April 29, 6:24 am, Mr. Kirby emailed Mr. Dyal, the City, Jones Edmunds engineers, others, and County Attorney Joel Foreman.

Mr. Kirby mentioned that he had asked for density reports on County roads dug up for the Wastewater Project. He wrote they had not been received.

Mr. Kirby also asked the County Attorney for assistance in alerting the County 5 to the issues regarding County utility permits and safety and quality control issues.

Mr. Kirby wanted to be prepared for the May 5 County 5 meeting if the reports had not been received.

Two hours later, Mr. Dyal responded to Mr. Kirby and copied numerous others, including the City Attorney Koberlein, Jones Edmunds Engineers, and the County Manager.

I guess I am not understanding your comment, “navigating the Board as it relates to current/future utility permits as it relates to the City of Lake City". Is this an attempt to change and make up different rules for the City when someone gets their butt hurt?

As far as I know the City has always performed our part of the requirements of the county permit and have done everything you requested when we discussed this particular project earlier this week. The engineering company said the density reports would be provided. 

However, based on your comment above, and not knowing what the future liability for the City may be based on that outcome, effective immediately the City of Lake City will no longer assist the County with any of their current utility systems or infrastructure, directional drilling, or other request. The only exception for assistance will be if it is a matter of safety or health concern to a citizen. Our citizens should not be impacted because someone gets their feelings hurt. Thanks to all involved.

Unknown to but a few insiders, the City has been helping out the County with utility advice for some time. Remember, the City has thousands of customers, and the County Utility Division has two employees and, until recently, just a handful of customers. Mr. Dyal's last paragraph refers to withdrawing that assistance.

Two hours later, Mr. Kirby responded: “The County will continue providing services to all branches of Government when needed. For clarification purposes, my feelings are not hurt in any way. I do find it interesting the level of professional behavior being exhibited, when the only desire is to insure safety and quality.”

Then, two hours later, Mr. Dyal walked it back. He emailed without the Dyal sarcasm:

"Good afternoon, based on a meeting earlier today with county and city staff, I believe the City and County have worked out the majority of issues that have been brought up. Therefore, the City will continue providing services to all branches of Government when needed and asked to assist. I'm glad we were able to meet and clear up the misunderstandings relayed in this email chain. Thanks to all involved.”

The final email came from Jones Edmunds, the project's engineers. It is dated May 3, two days before the County's scheduled County Commission (County 5) meeting.

The email included spec sheets/drawings which showed compaction schedules for the wastewater project pipe installation and the following note:

There was confusion between the City and Engineer over who was monitoring what on this project and, since our meeting today, we now have that straightened out. On all of our future projects that are collaborations between the County and the City we will be sure to include provisions on the drawings that the County needs to be contacted before any work is progressed in your roadways. This will give you the chance to provide direction up front to ensure they are restored to your satisfaction.

Part III
Epilogue: So, What’s The Problem?

Jones Edmunds got the project wrong. This wastewater project is not a collaboration between the City and County. It is a state-financed City Utility Project.

Is it a good idea for the County to be informed of work on its roadways? Sure. It is also a good idea that the County be informed when anyone is working on county-owned property.

If the City's contractor had followed standard, FDOT approved safety procedures, and kept the construction site clean and its construction equipment off the roadway, the County may never have known about what was going on in the trenches.

The County is now examining its Utility Easement Policies. It does not appear that there are any written policies.

Late yesterday (May 6), County Manager Kraus told your reporter, "The County will have to examine how we work with utility providers and anyone that does work in a County right of way."

This meeting was attended via CMT (communications media techonolgy). To find out more about CMT read Florida Attorney General Opinion, here.

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