Florida Keys

Keys officials said they didn’t need help with post-Irma cleanup — but email says otherwise

Florida Keys canal filled with storm debris months after Hurricane Irma

Big Pine Key residents and county officials try to address the canals on the key filled with debris from Hurricane Irma.
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Big Pine Key residents and county officials try to address the canals on the key filled with debris from Hurricane Irma.

A federal audit looking into controversial and lucrative emergency debris removal contracts approved by the state after Hurricane Irma blasted the Keys last year was launched by Florida members of Congress who said Monroe County never requested the state come in and help with debris removal.

But a Sept. 28, 2017, email sent by Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi to Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Mike Dew, which was obtained by the Miami Herald/FLKeysNews.com this week through a public records request, clearly states the county did ask for FDOT’s help in clearing the piles of debris from county and other municipality roads.

In the email, Gastesi writes: “Our debris removal contractor is struggling with clearing up the Florida Keys. With this email, we are asking you to task your debris removal contractor(s) currently working in the Keys to perform debris removal and disposal in county roads, and city roads in the cities of Layton and Key Colony Beach.”

The email was sent the day after a Monroe County commission meeting in Key West where commissioners and staff criticized FDOT for bringing in contractors to clear storm debris when the county already had a contractor in place, AshBritt Environmental, for the job. They said the FDOT contractors were disrupting AshBritt’s work, and at that time, they weren’t sure who was paying the FDOT contractors. (The contractors were paid by the state.)

Mayor George Neugent went so far as to accuse Gov. Rick Scott of “price gouging” during the meeting because the state contractors were being paid much more than the county contractor, and he added, “We don’t need these other guys helping us.”

But county staff and commissioners also acknowledged debris cleanup was taking too long. County attorney Bob Shillinger said there were “performance issues” with AshBritt.

The five commissioners tasked county legal staff to examine several options, including: Hold firm with the current cleanup contracts; direct staff to work with FDOT to have its contractors coordinate with AshBritt; and authorize the county administrator to issue emergency requests for proposals for other contractors. The commissioners scheduled a special meeting for two days later, Sept. 29, to discuss the options.

But that meeting was abruptly canceled minutes before it was scheduled to begin that Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Gastesi sent his email requesting FDOT’s help.

It’s not clear if the decision to send the email was made at the administrative level or at the request of county commissioners, who did not hold a public meeting about the request.. By Florida law, county commissioners and most other elected officials cannot meet together or make collective decisions outside of publicly noticed meetings.

None of the five commissioners responded to questions asking why the meeting was canceled, if they knew Gastesi sent the request for FDOT to begin debris removal on county roads, or if the commissioners were involved with that decision.

In the email, which was sent to Dew at 3:49 p.m. on Sept. 28, 2017, Gastesi writes that he, Dew, Neugent and “pertinent staff” discussed debris removal on a phone call that morning.

“The challenge of debris removal and disposal related to Hurricane Irma is well established,” Gastesi wrote. “The importance of cleaning up the Florida Keys is paramount to getting the tourism industry back on track and the thousands of jobs that depend on it.”

Shillinger said he and Gastesi have been attending the Florida Association of Counties policy conference in Punta Gorda the past two days and has not had time to address the questions.

At the center of the issue are two emergency contracts Scott awarded just days after Irma to two companies that were paid much more by FDOT than the county was paying its contractors, including AshBritt, to remove storm debris.

Companies with pre-position contracts, like AshBritt, one of the country’s largest debris cleanup companies, based in Broward County, couldn’t attract subcontractors away from the FDOT-contracted companies and lost work and money. Not only is AshBritt suing the county and FDOT, but the cost of cleaning up storm debris is tens of millions of dollars higher than it would have been had the companies with the existing contractors completed the work.

The issue was not unique to Monroe County, or even Florida. With back-to-back hurricanes Harvey and Irma, states, counties and other municipalities increased rates they were willing to pay companies to clear storm debris. Even Miami-Dade County negotiated higher rates, which attracted subcontractors away from the Keys.

But in Monroe, companies like AshBritt were not allowed to renegotiate their contracts and had to compete against the two FDOT-contracted firms, Munilla Construction Management and Community Asphalt — based in South Miami-Dade County and Tallahassee respectively.

“The problem is, every one of those trucks that moves into the county is poached by one of the FDOT contractors because we’re paying them a certain rate, and they can double and triple the rates we’re able to pay,” Randy Perkins, chief executive of AshBritt, told Monroe County commissioners at the Sept. 27, 2018, meeting.

Since FDOT was paying the contractors, with no money filtering through the county, critics, including Florida’s Democratic congressional coalition, say Scott orchestrated an “exorbitant price-gouging” scheme against the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which reimburses states for funds spent in the aftermath of disasters.

The lawmakers, led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, sent a letter on July 18 to John V. Kelly, acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security to include “Monroe County debris contract issues” in his office’s “ongoing audit projects of FEMA oversight of Hurricane Irma recovery efforts.”

The letter, signed also by the 10 other Democratic members of Congress, states Monroe County officials did not ask for the state’s help.

“These unnecessarily costly, unorthodox contracts were also signed over the objections of Monroe County officials, who have stated they did not request any type of state aid or interference in its debris removal contract process,” the letter states.

Kelly replied in a Sept. 20 letter that his agency would begin the audit.

But even before Gastesi sent the email to FDOT, a request for the agency’s help was sent from the county right after the storm through a state messaging system known as Constellation, Gastesi said at the meeting last fall. But he also said that request was canceled about a week later, but activated again. He did not know who originally sent the request, he told commissioners.

“It’s a mission request that was in the system. We told them, the state, stop it. We don’t want to do that anymore, last Friday Thursdayish,” he said. “They took it and reactivated it again, so, regardless of what we said, so, this is really at the governor level at this point. We already said to Tallahassee, ‘We got this. You’re disturbing the issue. Go away.’ And, they went ahead and reactivated it.”