It could be the largest financial blunder in the history of Gateway.

On October 15, 2015 the Board of Supervisors of the Gateway Services Community Development District will be told that the initial estimates to correct the issues involving the community’s lakes were wrong.

How wrong? Supervisor Rod Senior wrote an open letter to the residents on March 11, 2015 in which he stated: “Beyond fiscal year 2015, my best cost estimate (after consultation with Tetra Tech), for the remaining 42 ponds on the list is between $3m – $4m.”

Tetra Tech is Gateway’s engineering firm.

At the next GSCDD meeting, the new estimate presented by Tetra Tech will be $13,192,000.

The estimate has somehow more than tripled.

Put another way, and assuming the new estimate is correct, it will now cost every household in Gateway $2,180.07 (see note) to correct the bank erosion issues with the ponds. That total doesn’t even begin to address the water quality issues.

NOTE: The $2,180.07 figure was derived by dividing the $13,192,000 total by the 6051.18 EAUs in Gateway listed in the Fiscal 2016 Adopted Budget published by the GSCDD, and it assumes each residence is 1 EAU.

The new plan to be presented by Tetra Tech calls for action to be taken at 47 lakes, not 42 as was mentioned by Senior in March. The work would be done in three phases, the first of which conveniently happens to use up most of the $5 million the GSCDD was preparing to borrow to fix all of the lakes.

But instead of fixing all 47 ponds, the initial $5 million spent will fix just 13 ponds.

Well actually … only $4,393,000 is called for in the first phase, but they were probably wise to assume there would be cost over-runs.

For clarity, the terms ‘ponds’ and ‘lakes’ have been used interchangeably when this subject has been discussed. The generally accepted term is stormwater retention pond, however the project is called the Lake Bank Restoration Project.

We should also point out that the main function of the ponds is to collect the bulk of the rain water we experience in Southwest Florida. That’s why this is a Gateway-wide issue and not just an issue for people who happen to have lakes behind their homes. Even if you don’t have a nice lake to look at in your back yard, you do benefit greatly from the lakes.

Returning to the topic of the new estimate, the second phase of the plan that will be presented to the Supervisors on Thursday calls for $4,415,000 to be spent correcting 15 lakes. The third and final phase would see $4,384,000 spent fixing the remaining 19 lakes that have been identified has having serious issues.

Phase one would occur in 2016, while phases two and three would take place in future years.

A couple of questions.

First, the pond inspections were performed by Tetra Tech staff, GSCDD staff, and Ed Tinkle.

All well and good, but since we’re being told that the South Florida Water Management District are the ones insisting that our lake problems be corrected – shouldn’t an official from that agency go out to all 47 problem lakes and identify which ones don’t meet the standards and are actually in need of repair?

Maybe they’ll say all 47, but maybe they’ll say only 40 have to be fixed.. or 35.. or a different number.

With the financial crunch many communities are in, perhaps they’re not being as harsh or strict on their standards and some lakes might be borderline and left off of a list prepared by the SFWMD.

Second question: Are other communities being held to this standard? Is the SFWMD going to community after community demanding compliance?

Third … If phase one of the project is approved, exactly how much money does Tetra Tech stand to benefit? I’m not suggesting anything sinister, just asking an honest question.

Tetra Tech are our our district engineers. Presumably it was them, more than Senior, who came up with the $3-4 million estimate initially. So should Tetra Tech still be considered an authority on this type of work after they’ve provided Senior and the other board members with such terrible guidance so far?

Is it time to bring in the Joe DeCerbo of Florida lake repairs?

Fourth, exactly what kind of repair is involved for that $13,192,000 estimate? Are the residents of Gateway paying simply to get the lakes in to compliance, or does that figure include paying for a beautiful stone finish along the shoreline which will increase property values for some residents at the expense of others?

Final question, what now?

While the estimate on March 11, 2015 was $3-4 million, the most common number used was $4 million at subsequent GSCDD meetings. Even that $4 million figure paralyzed the board, so how will they digest $13.2M to fix the lake banks?

Without intending to pile on, what about water quality? The lakes will need littorals. Some will need aerators. That could add several million dollars to the final tab.

The GSCDD is “only” preparing to borrow $5 million. And as Tetra Tech put it: “Amount of money requested via SRF will only cover approximately 35% of the lake bank repairs in the community”.

SRF stands for State Revolving Fund, which means Gateway would be borrowing the money from the State of Florida.

The understanding was that $5 million was for a 100% solution, not 35%.

The entire situation has changed.

No doubt, somewhere in Gateway Greens, Rod Senior has consumed a few bottles of TUMS since the news broke of the massive correction to the pond erosion repair estimate. Senior’s fingerprints are all over the Lake Bank Restoration Project, but the truth is that Senior frequently defers to hired experts.

So while Senior has spearheaded this charge, he’s been given terrible advice – and he trusted it. A knock on Senior’s judgment? Perhaps. But we probably all would have done the same thing in that situation.

The interesting thing will be to see if he continues to trust that advice going forward, or if Senior recommends bringing in an actual expert on these matters to advise the Board. If he continues to trust the same advisers and the project goes even further off course, that’s on Senior.

It would be one thing if the estimate was $4 million and they were off by hundreds of thousands. Frankly, that’s normal. This is far from an exact science. There’s going to be mistakes. But when your first estimate is only 30% of your second estimate, I’m sorry but that suggests there are issues with someone’s ability to do the job.

We’re not talking about an ‘oops’ here. We’re talking about misjudgment on a massive scale on the community’s most significant financial problem in decades.

Making it all the more maddening, over $1,000,000 of the residents’ money has already been spent on lake repairs with mixed results. What we got was $1,000,000 worth of education on how to manage a large scale project to repair problem ponds.

Whether the GSCDD puts that education to good use remains to be seen.

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

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