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The city of St. Pete Beach was excited to recently announce the reopening of historic Merry Pier after extensive renovations. A city commissioner was not as excited about the cost of the project, which ended up costing more than $350,000 than first anticipated.

ST. PETE BEACH — Why has the rehabilitation of Merry Pier turned out to be $352,780 more costly than first anticipated?

Change orders have caused the cost of some city projects to be much more expensive at the end of construction than was estimated at the start, and at least one city commissioner, Mark Grill, wanted to know why at a recent City Commission meeting.

Grill first raised the issue at a Jan. 25 meeting, and did so again on Feb. 8, when he questioned a vote to retroactively approve a change order for Merry Pier in the amount of $35,366.

According to information supplied by the city’s Department of Public Works, the original bid to restore Merry Pier was $754,834, which was revised to $1,000,900 due to higher construction costs. Additional change orders added over several months then increased the cost to $1,042,987.

However, the project also included the 11th Avenue Pier replacement, which started out with an estimate of $120,085, but ended up costing $146,028, and 7th Avenue Pier repairs, estimated to cost $111, 219 but ending up at $163,766.

Seven change order requests left the total original $1 million project costing an estimated $1,352,780, or $352,780 over budget.

Public Works staff said Merry Pier, which reopened Feb. 10, has undergone extensive renovations, including a new main pier, new decking, new pilings, structural pile jackets for the pilings under the building, as well as new electrical, plumbing, and lighting. The pier is almost a completely new structure except for three finger piers that were new prior to the start of the project.

At the Feb. 8 meeting, Grill told fellow commissioners he was surprised to see that additional funds were needed to complete the Merry Pier project, because at the last meeting he raised the question of why there were so many unanticipated overruns and how the city got to this point in the project.

“It’s not Merry Pier itself. I think Merry Pier is a great place, Grill said. “I don’t have an issue with Merry Pier. I like it, I go down there, it’s really nice.”

Grill took issue with change orders coming up “at a very, very late point in the project. It’s not clear to me how we got there.”

He noted that the Pier project was about 35 percent over budget, and the library project went about $500,000 over its original estimate of $1.7 million.

“Yes, you learn things as you go, no project is perfect, but these are big hits and big changes,” Grill said. “We seem to repeat history.”

City Manager Alex Rey cited three situations that affect project budgets: unforeseen conditions that drive up costs; changes in scope; and contractor-driven change orders.

He said he has been trying to change the philosophy of trying to estimate projects to the minimum common possible product.

“We’re a city where the expectations are now higher and the quality of product that we deliver has to be higher; we need to be scoping that from the very beginning,” Rey said. “If not, we end up having change orders when we, at the last minute, say, ‘Well, in order to really make it nice, we should have this and this.’”

He said contractor-driven change orders are also manageable and is something the city needs to work on.

“The biggest deficiency I’ve seen in some of the … plans developed in prior years, that were not implemented, is that there wasn’t the right perspective in terms of what the final product should look like. I agree with the commissioner that we need to do a better job,” he said.

The city manager said staff should have explained the idea behind retroactive approval of change orders to have avoided confusion.

“There are situations where in a project of a large size, talking about a million or more, (where) sometimes you get towards the end of the line and if you need to approve changes in scope, time is of the essence,” he said. “Sometimes, the timetable doesn’t work exactly with the intervals of the commission meetings to say, ‘Well, we can wait two weeks or three weeks. If we had not said ‘yes’ at the last meeting, to go forward with some of the things, we would have basically had to pay somebody to remobilize.”

Brett Warner, assistant public works director, said the last change order was needed because of issues with pile caps and jackets. The issue wasn’t caught during inspection “because it wasn’t happening when the inspection report was generated,” but came to light during construction.

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve what should be the final change order for the Merry Pier Project.