By Michele Dargan, Special to the Civic Association.- Palm Beach Town Manager Tom Bradford updated residents Monday on the status of the undergrounding project that is scheduled to begin in May, but may be delayed due to two pending lawsuits.
In addition to the lawsuits, Mr. Bradford discussed two additional major issues impacting the project: the estimated cost and the potential involvement of telecommunications companies.
Mr. Bradford spoke following the Town Council Candidates’ Debate sponsored by the Palm Beach Civic Association and held at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea.
Civic Association President Ned Barnes introduced Mr. Bradford. “Mr. Bradford is heading up the town’s effort to bury the overhead wires,” Mr. Barnes said. “He and his staff and consultants work with the town’s underground utility task force to implement a town-wide program in Palm Beach.”
Mr. Bradford spoke for about 10 minutes before taking questions from the audience.
He gave an historical perspective on the project, explained the current status and what may lie ahead going forward. In March 2016, the project was approved by a 62-vote margin in a town referendum with a price tag of $90 million.
The two lawsuits against the town argue the legitimacy of the referendum, Mr. Bradford said. Mr. Bradford said he met with town attorneys who have told him that the best case scenario for the lawsuits to be settled is May. The original plan was for construction to begin May 1. Even if the court rules in the town’s favor by May, the lawsuits could drag on for six months beyond that or longer if the plaintiffs file appeals, he said.
“This is significant because I cannot access the general obligation bond money that you, the voters, approved until the suits are completely resolved,” he said. “No one is going to lend us money with this cloud over our head.”
Civic Association Chairman and CEO Bob Wright asked Mr. Bradford why the “frivolous” lawsuits have anything to do with raising the funds.
“The lawsuits are frivolous and the attorneys told us they are confident we are going to win,” he said. “But they are telling us no one is going to lend us any money until they go away – or if they did (lend the money), it would be a higher rate because of the risk involved.”
The town and the task force are looking at alternate funding plans, he said.
Mr. Bradford gave the following timeline of events:
In the summer of 2014, Mr. Bradford commissioned an electrical engineer, who had significant undergrounding experience in South Florida, to give the town an estimate of what it would cost to bury the lines for the entire island. The estimate was $72 million.
He distributed it to town staff for their input and they added $13 million to cover additional costs that will be needed after burying the lines.
Click Below to See Video of the Undergrounding Update [19:00]
The town formed the Underground Utilities Task Force and in October 2014 the Town Council voted to proceed with the project.
Just before the referendum in 2016, Mr. Bradford said he was concerned about inflation and added $5 million to the project, bringing the cost estimate to $90 million.
December 2016 was a significant month for the project, he said. In December, he received the engineer’s opinion of the cost as well as the master plan.
“I have the master plan, but can’t release it, because the project came in over the $90 million,” he said. “I can’t tell you the number until I feel it is a bonafide, solid number.”
Also in December, the town was approached by Hotwire and FPL Fibernet, both of whom are providing services to a couple of condominiums and businesses in Palm Beach. Representatives from those companies told staff that they would like to expand their services to other areas of town.
“If they become partners with the town, we could conceivably cut our costs on the project,” he said. “They would share in the restoration, the trenching, the horizontal directional drilling and so forth. So it’s important to find out to what extent they wish to participate. They could want to cherry pick …. to go in the higher density areas of town and that could affect the master plan schedule. Even though I have a master plan with a schedule of how we’re going to do this over the next seven or eight years, I don’t want to release it in the event that the Telecoms impact the schedule. I want to give you a schedule you can bank on.”
This month, the task force voted to proceed with a request for information from telecommunication companies throughout the country who would be interested in serving Palm Beach.
“We want to hear from all of them to find out who is interested to see what cost effect it would have on our budget and it would obviously provide you with alternatives for telecommunications like high-speed internet,” he said.
Mr. Bradford summed up the undergrounding status by saying: “The project is going through a rough patch right now, but there are possibilities that can provide opportunities for us to make it a reality. We can also alter the way that we go about doing the project, so we have many, many options that we can pursue to make it happen or not happen. At the end of the day, it’s your project. We do it for you and we will do as the Town Council instructs us.”