The city’s stalling on approval for drainage-work permits to keep Fourth Avenue businesses from flooding could derail the entire project and cost taxpayers millions, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says.
The city and county have been dueling over the timing of the project because the construction will significantly impact the Fourth Avenue Street Fair, which starts March 21.
Work along North Third Avenue and relocation of underground utilities must start by early March to meet a March 27 deadline for preliminary construction to be done, and a May 1 city deadline to finish the project, Huckelberry said.
Tucson Water insists the work must be done by then to avoid disrupting water service in the area during the hottest time of the year.
Huckelberry said he will not allow late penalties or extra liabilities attached to each of those deadlines to be added to the cost of the joint Pima County Regional Flood Control District and Corps of Engineers project just because the city wants to drag its feet on issuing permits to avoid disrupting the street fair.
The city denied it’s sitting on the permits until after the street fair. City spokesman Mike Graham said the city is moving forward with the project and is cooperating with all parties.
The city issued some preliminary permits Tuesday so crews could pinpoint where utilities are located under the road. He said final permits haven’t been issued because no one has submitted final plans for review.
Those plans will soon be finished and turned over to the city, said Suzanne Shields, director of the Pima County Regional Flood Control District.
Under normal circumstances, a contractor could start prepping the street and relocating utilities while waiting for design approvals and materials, Shields said.
If the city won’t waive the penalties and extend deadlines, Huckelberry will recommend pulling the plug on the project for this year.
“We need six to eight weeks to construct, so if we do not get a permit by the end of February, then we can’t construct this fiscal year,” Shields wrote in an email.
The nature of Corps of Engineers funding is such that if the project is stalled until next year, the corps could redirect its $3.7 million share of the cost elsewhere, Shields said,
That could put local taxpayers on the hook for both the project and any flood damage that occurs to businesses for as long as it is delayed, Huckelberry said.
Completing the project quickly is critical, he said, because the city increased the flood potential along Fourth Avenue when it elevated the streetcar maintenance facility out of the flood plain, which could result in “future flooding claims against the city.”
WHY THE DELAY?
The ongoing dispute over the flood project is an outgrowth of the city’s refusal to suspend streetcar testing during the street fair.
Fourth Avenue Merchants Association Executive Director John Sedwick said he worked with city officials to permanently relocate portions of the fair along Seventh Street to Fifth Avenue to accommodate the streetcar.
But Sedwick asked for a one-time reprieve in October after he discovered the county was moving ahead with the drainage plan. Sedwick believed the project would cut off traffic from the east and harm vendors' sales.
Sedwick threatened to cut 71 vendors from the fair unless the city suspended streetcar testing.
City officials wouldn't budge and said Sedwick already knew they couldn't modify the testing schedule for the Spring Fair.
Huckelberry also accused the city of using a loophole to get out of an agreement to split the cost of relocating utilities on projects like this — in this case $425,000.
The city said it shouldn’t pay because the Pima County Regional Flood Control District is not the same as Pima County, and those agreements didn’t apply.
Huckelberry disagrees and ordered county attorneys to figure it out, but he said he hopes the city will pay half of the costs out of the “spirit of partnership.”
He has yet to hear back from the city.
But the dispute prompted him to say the county is going to change how it finances flood projects in the future, requiring cities to kick in 20 percent of a project’s design and construction costs when it benefits a single entity.
Also, the county won’t pay for utility relocation on flood projects. That will fall on cities. He has issued an interim administrative directive to that effect until it is taken up by the flood control district’s board of directors, which is the Board of Supervisors.
This tangled affair could have been avoided, City Councilman Steve Kozachik said, if the city had worked more cooperatively and earlier with the street fair and the county.
“We delayed permits for the county project to make way for the street fair, and in the process we effectively damaged our relationships with both FAMA and the county. It could have been a win-win, but we snatched defeat from the hands of victory,” he said.
Unaware of the city-county dispute, Sedwick announced Tuesday that only about 20 vendors and artists will be trimmed from the street fair after they received assurances from the city Friday that Third Avenue will remain open throughout the fair.
It is unclear where the fight over deadlines and penalties leaves that guarantee.