Bernstein Park – The Pattern Repeats


Bernstein Park:  It’s a puzzle.

I was away for a week and it was great!  Now I’m catching up on the news.  I saw this item on  Despite being very “irate” over the escalating costs of improvements at Bernstein Park, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) decided to go ahead with them anyway.  In April 2015, the public was told the project would cost about $3 million.  A year later, the cost has escalated to almost $8 million.  It’s a very familiar pattern.

Lower Keys park renovations soar in cost, drawing ire of county commissioners

All the standard elements of BOCC theater are there.

  • The BOCC pretends they are shocked that the price of improvements has more than doubled.
  • It turns out that a two-story community center was “added” to the plan, along with other unspecified improvements.  As a logical result, the project cost has substantially increased.  That’s the story they’re telling anyway.
  • Staff falls on their sword, apologizes for not keeping the BOCC informed.  Mmmmkay….
  • Comm. Kolhage says the project must go forward because it is what the community wants.  He is contradicted by a member of the community who says she does not want a community center.  She wants green space.  Hmmm…
  • Murphy says this park is the “least functional thing” she’s ever seen.  She ought to know all about dysfunctional.  She bears a lot of responsibility for the wastewater debacle.

I’ve got questions, so many questions.

Isn’t it common sense that a 6,000 square foot, two-story community center building would significantly increase the cost of the project?  If it cost $3 million to make site improvements, wouldn’t it make sense that a large new building would cost as much or more?  So why is the BOCC so surprised by the amount of the cost “escalation”?  (Oh by the way, there’s a maintenance building, too.)

While the BOCC is pretending to be shocked by this “sudden” development, it turns out that the community center has been part of the plan all along.  Here’s a link to the minutes of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (advisory board) January 2015 meeting.  Comm. Kolhage was in attendance.  So was Comm. Carruthers.

Dr. Boilini requested that the construction project be phased if possible to accommodate the use of the ball fields during the construction of the community center. Mr. Yongue agreed to explore the possibility, and explained to the group that the project should be completed by next year.

Clearly, nobody was trying to sneak anything past the BOCC.  So what is this political theater really all about?  I submitted a public records request for the initial and current cost estimate for several over budget capital projects, including Bernstein Park.

I’m still sifting through the documents, but here’s a preliminary cost estimate from April 2014.  Notice that the estimated cost at that time was between $5.3 million and $6.6 million – about double what was included in the five-year capital plan at the April 8, 2015 budget hearing.  Cost information about the Bernstein Park project was available and reasonably accurate.  So where’s the disconnect?  Why was only $3 million included in the capital plan when it was known that the actual cost of the project was much more?

Let’s assume for a minute that staff failed to provide this cost estimate to the BOCC.  [Extremely hard to believe!]  It’s available for the asking.  They gave it to me – a harsh and relentless critic.  If they’ll give the information to me, they’ll certainly give it to an elected official.  Wouldn’t a responsible elected official simply request the document?  Or insist that detailed cost information be provided as agenda back-up?

I’m not sure what’s going on exactly, but I’ve got a couple of theories.  I’m guessing they are interrelated.

  1.  This is another money-grab.  We know that the Toppino companies have benefited greatly from Big Coppitt and Cudjoe Regional.  They netted $6 million from the very secretive Big Coppitt rebid.  We also know that Comm. Kolhage dabbles in construction, and has some questionable business associates who dabble in construction along with him.
  2. Political cover.  Comm. Kolhage made a big show of voting against Rowell’s Marina and the Seven Mile Bridge because they were “not needed”.  For vague, unstated reasons, he felt that all the other parks he voted for (ie. those located in the Lower Keys) were “needed”.  That includes Bernstein Park.  He would have had an even harder time justifying his vote if the public knew that the cost of Bernstein Park was $8 million rather than $3 million.

I would imagine some crony or other is benefiting from this project.  But in order for the crony or cronies to benefit, the project has to make it into the capital plan, which means it has to be sold to the public.  If the cost is too high, the public won’t buy.

At the time, the BOCC was still trying to pretend that the wastewater funding disparity was justified because they spend so much on capital projects that benefit Key Largo.  This is untrue, of course, but presumably the BOCC didn’t want to contradict themselves in too obvious a way.

Here’s the bottom line:  the true cost and scope of the project was not made apparent to the public at the time of the BOCC’s budget meeting in April 2015.  It’s only becoming clear now – a year later.  The advisory board minutes make it plain that the community center was part of the plan in January 2015.  Both Carruthers and Kolhage were present at that meeting, and they would have been well aware of the community center at the time.  The cost estimate from April 2014 makes it clear that the true cost of the project was much higher than what was budgeted in April 2015.

There are more documents to sift through.  It will take some doing to figure out what’s really going on here, but I’ll keep at it.  One thing’s clear, reasonably accurate cost information was available.  Why wasn’t it made public at last year’s budget hearing?  Why the bait and switch?  Was this a deliberate attempt to mislead the public?

Once again, we’re faced with the question:  Incompetence, corruption or both?


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