Gateway Sun

Poor workmanship, a fired sub-contractor, “cheapo” equipment, a lack of oversight, an employee who quit, a clear-cut case conflict of interest and even one water meter that was installed “backwards”.

That sums up the Water Meter Replacement Project.

An explosive “unsolicited engineering report” by GSCDD Supervisor-in-waiting Ed Tinkle details the problematic project from start to finish. We’ll break down Tinkle’s report in two parts. Today we’ll lay out what the meter issues means to the average Gateway resident, and tomorrow we’ll go over Tinkle’s (rather convincing) objections to how the contractor was selected in the first place.

But first, let’s quickly identify the players involved.

Fortiline is the name of the company that was awarded the meter replacement contract, but they didn’t do the actual installations. Instead, Fortiline sub-contracted the work out to a division of Severn Trent (yes, that Severn Trent). And the meters used – described by Tinkle as “cheapo” meters – were sold by a company named Zennar USA.

PART 1 OF 2:

The American Water Works Association recommends that water meters be replaced every 15 years at most. In Gateway, many meters were over 20 years old before the Gateway Services Community Development District began looking in to a replacement program back in 2013.

In August 2014, the district secured up to $1,350,000 in financing from Iberia Bank and awarded a $1,244,000 contract to Fortiline to replace over 6,000 potable water and irrigation meters in Gateway.

With the old meters, a CDD staff member would have to come to your home every two months, look at both of your meters and record your usage. Your new meter system transmits your water usage in real time using AMI, or Advanced Meter Infrastructure.

The meter replacement project was to be split in to two phases. The first was a 240 home “pilot” project, and the second phase would be the rest of the meters.

Late in 2014, the test meters were installed in parts of Gateway Greens and Pinewood Lakes.

In April 2015, then Utility Manager Ivan Velez announced that the pilot was a success and he recommended the district proceed with installing the remaining meters. The Board of Supervisors approved.

Now … let’s get one thing straight. You cannot replace over 6,000 water meters and expect perfection from your contractor and equipment vendors.

What you can reasonably expect … is for there to be less than 1,000 problems. Unfortunately that was not the case.

The project was reportedly 95% complete by February 2016. By that time however, residents and district staff were reporting problem problem after problem with the meters.

It got so bad that the district’s new billing manager, who had only joined the GSCDD in January 2016, couldn’t take it any more. According to Tinkle “she was unable to work in an atmosphere of unprofessionalism, unethical behavior and the above stated conflict of interest and resigned after three months. Her 3-ring binder of documents and e-mails pertaining to the project’s problems is available for public inspection.”

In May 2016, Tinkle alerted the Gateway Sun via email to a possible “cover-up” involving the Water Meter Replacement Project. Tinkle’s report suggests no such cover-up and if there ever was a cover-up, nothing’s covered up anymore.

We have not yet inspected the former billing manager’s 3-ring binder containing her documented accounts of the problems that occurred. Current Utulity Manager Chris Shoemaker was supposed to send us the district’s report auditing the water meter installations, but he had not sent it as of the time of publication. However, Tinkle’s report states that out of the 6,200-6,300 meters installed as of May 2016, over 1,200 of the meters or installations had issues – 500 of them considered serious.

The Sun contacted Chairman William Guy, Supervisor Doug Banks, Operations Manager April White and Shoemaker for this article. It was confirmed by GSCDD officials that some residents have been enjoying water bills that are at an all-time low due to faulty equipment and/or incorrect meter installations.

According to Shoemaker, for a variety of reasons, there have been multiple instances of the meter equipment failing to transmit water usage to the district offices. That meant that bills were sent out that stated the resident had zero water usage.

Shoemaker said that with AMI, district staff are able now to easily identify the zero-use meters and have been reaching out to residents to discuss and solve problems. Shoemaker also said that in many cases the actual water usage is being recorded, but not transmitted to the CDD offices for one reason or another. However once they get to the issue and find the correct usage, the residents will be required to pay for their water and sewage usage both past and present.

White and Shoemaker confirmed that the reasons for the zero-use bills range from dead batteries to manufacturing defects in the transmission equipment.

But while some people are temporarily enjoying cheap (or seemingly free) water service due to under-reported usage from the equipment, Tinkle says the exact opposite happened to him.

While Tinkle was standing with a GSCDD employee as his witness, Tinkle tested his water meter allowing 100 gallons to flow through his irrigation system (and irrigation meter) but the irrigation meter recorded 200 gallons had been used. Tinkle said that happened just two weeks ago.

Tinkle’s meter was one of the first installed back in late 2014 as part of the pilot project. What that means is just because your meter has worked fine for a month, or even a year, it may still flake out in the future.

One of the recommendations Tinkle makes in his report is that the Board of Supervisors summon the contractor and the meter vendor to a future GSCDD meeting and demand a 5-year warranty on all parts an labor.

The report states that “thousands” of man-hours worth of time have already been spent by district employees on a system that was sold to the residents and board as being “turn-key”.

If thousands of hours have been spent, then that could mean over $100,000 in costs have been incurred by Gateway residents to fix issues that were supposed to be under warranty. Tinkle wants the district seek repayment of those funds.

Multiple GSCDD officials downplayed Tinkle’s concerns. They feel the worst is behind them and that they’ll solve future problems as they arise.

That may be the case, but Tinkle’s larger point is correct: why are Gateway residents paying for the contractor’s mistakes and faulty equipment?

The board and staff have obviously been aware of these issues for many months, so why has no effort been made to hold the contractor accountable and recoup costs?

Tinkle, who will become a Supervisor himself on November 17, plans to attend this Thursday’s GSCDD meeting and press the board for answers to that question.

We will continue to press the district for the audit and report its findings to you. In the meantime if you feel there’s a problem of over-billing or under-billing with your meter, call the GSCDD at 239-561-1313.

Tomorrow, in Part 2 of this story, we’ll discuss the conflict of interest that was there for all to see when the Board of Supervisors awarded this contract to Fortiline.

About Jeff Kuntz

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Editor of the Gateway Sun and owner of restaurant delivery service Florida Food Runner.

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