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You don’t always get what you pay for

Feather Publishing
10/5/2011

I had no idea it costs almost a thousand dollars to spend a night in Quincy.

That’s what a Redding-based contractor claimed as he was trying to justify his bill to the East Quincy Services District.

OK, it wasn’t really a thousand. It was $940.

Four guys. Two rooms. One night … at the Lariat Lodge.

The Lariat is a nice local motel. It advertises itself as “Clean, Quiet and Comfortable,” … with rooms starting at 58 bucks.

The rate jumps to 98 dollars if you go for one of the family units.

“So, if I call the Lariat, are they going to tell me two rooms cost $940?” EQSD engineer Dan Bastian asked the burly contractor.

“Probably not,” one of the contractor’s colleagues replied. “But you are going to have to call the gas station and find out what meals the guys ate, too. You’ll want to call Safeway and Taco Bell …”

The guy had to be kidding, right?

But there was no trace of humor showing on his reddish straight face.

Even if the contractors opted for the “expensive” rooms and watched a bunch of pay-per-view movies, that still left about $700 for food and gas.

Maybe they filled four gas tanks before retiring to their family units to munch on 500 tacos?

The $940 charge is tiny compared to some of the extras the contractor is trying to bill the EQSD for a summer project.

In what is looking like a capital improvement project from hell, the EQSD is withholding about $47,000 while Bastian and the board of directors examine thousands of dollars worth of “change orders” submitted by the contractor. Change orders are charges for extra work.

The contractor has threatened to sue the district. And the matter may indeed be decided in court.

I know it’s common for contractors to win business with low bids and make extra money with “change orders” when the job doesn’t go exactly as planned. But this case is ridiculous.

EQSD customers should feel better knowing that their board, and engineer in particular, are questioning every penny from the contractor who handled all phases of the project.

The $157,000 project involved putting a new water main between Lee Road and Highway 70. The new line runs through the fairgrounds.

The project benefited the fairgrounds. It improved fire protection, in the form of two new hydrants, and added another source of water at no cost to the county.

But it was in the fairgrounds where things got ugly. Apparently an old, unused and forgotten septic tank was buried in the path of the new line.

Despite the EQSD’s decision to just dig around the tank, the contractors eventually screamed “breach of contract” and started the cash meter running.

I try to attend most of the EQSD board meetings. So I saw Bastian’s growing frustration with the contractor as the project progressed. The job was completed several weeks behind schedule.

It all boiled over Sept. 13, when the contractor attended an EQSD board meeting and demanded the remaining $47,000 due on the contract, plus about $42,000 in charges for extra work.

The EQSD has paid about $110,000 to the contractor so far.

For four hours, until almost 11 p.m., the board listened as Bastian calmly asked the contractor to justify 26 separate change orders.

Not all of the change orders were related to the ancient septic tank. And the EQSD approved some of the extra work.

The meeting went something like this: Bastian would calmly ask the contractor to explain each extra charge. The contractor would angrily respond, question Bastian’s competence, and even threaten him at one point.

“Don’t push your luck, Junior!” the contractor said after he slammed his hands on the table, jumped to his feet and hovered over the EQSD engineer.

I just about fell out of my chair during the outburst.

Bastian didn’t flinch. Instead, without expression, he stared at the contractor and quietly said, “Let’s move on to number 16.”

Bastian, who has been working for the district since 1994, has guided the EQSD through many projects. He knows what he is doing.

I was extremely impressed by the way he conducted himself and represented the interests of the ratepayers.

He wanted to know why the district was billed thousands of dollars for the contractor’s equipment that broke on the job.

Why did it take eight guys to do the work of four?

Why did a supplier place a $31,000 lien on the EQSD because the contractor didn’t pay for supplies he used?

Bastian barely winced at the hotel bills.

Maybe the contractor wasn’t doing anything wrong or illegal. But he certainly wasn’t operating in the spirit of the contract.

And $56.78 an hour to drive a backhoe, and $42.86 for a laborer is a pretty good wage by itself.

Heck, it’s almost enough for a night at the Lariat.


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