It’s gotten a little more expensive to have a park in paradise — 19% more, to be precise.
Key Biscayne officials are blaming higher-than-budgeted costs to bury power lines for the overrun at the site, once a Citgo station. But members of the village council expressed concern Tuesday about what appeared to be a knowingly incorrect cost estimate made in preparation for the 2023 budget.
The new price tag for the long-delayed park at 530 Crandon Boulevard is $1.9 million, up from the originally budgeted amount of $1.6 million. The biggest driver was an increase in the cost of utility undergrounding, initially budgeted at $75,000 but costing more than twice as much.
Adding to the expense was the need to clean more of the fouled soil than expected, costing an additional $34,000, and increases in labor and other costs in the two years since the project was bid.
The additional funds were approved in an amendment to the 2023 budget. While the overrun will come from the 2023 capital budget, it’s not yet clear how that will affect planned village projects. A second vote to amend the budget is expected next month.
But the council questioned why village staff underestimated the cost of undergrounding the power lines to such a large extent.
“Was that just pulling it out of thin air?” asked Council Member Ed London to Public works chief Jake Ozyman.
“No,” said Ozyman, but he said the allowable budget allocation was only $75,000. “FPL was right on the money, it was always $150,000.”
That response seemed to surprise Council Member Allison McCormick, and not in a good way.
“Did we really just say ‘this is how much is left? Let’s throw $75,000 at the undergrounding when you had the budget?’”
“Pretty much,” Ozyman replied. “We were trying to make the numbers work.”
Village Mayor Joe Rasco, presiding over his first council meeting since winning election, said he didn’t have any more information about the cost inaccuracy. But he said he expected the staff to be as precise as possible.
“We want the staff to tell us the right numbers whether we like them or not,” he said. Former Mayor Mike Davey echoed those comments, but said he did not have a specific recollection of the power line undergrounding costs.
Village Manager Steve Williamson said there will be impact on future capital projects, but did not have details other than to say lower-priority projects might be deferred.
As for the overrun, he said the administration was bound by the 2022 budget approval amount which he said was inadequate at the time.
“It was done before I was here,” Williamson said. He sidestepped the question of why the inadequate funding was not brought to the council’s attention during this year’s budgeting process.
“Sometimes that happens,” he said. “We’re doing that now.”
Paradise Park has been vexed — some would say cursed — for decades. Plans for the nearly 13,000 square foot parcel went back and forth for years between successive councils. Meanwhile, the cost of the project has risen while its features were debated. In 2019, the council balked at a $1.8 million dollar estimate, and the project was pared down.
Rasco said he expects the park to be eligible for about $160,000 in reimbursements for cleaning up polluted land, under a “brownfield” designation the council approved last night. He noted that it was during his earlier term as mayor — 20 years ago — that the council voted to acquire the gas station for about $1.5 million. He’s looking to come full circle on the park with an opening in January.
“A long time to wait for a ribbon cutting, for goodness sakes,” he said.
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NOTE : This story has been updated from the original version.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.