Riverside Drive project increases in cost after city delays paying contractor

Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 5:46 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A major road reconstruction project will cost Jackson taxpayers $76,000 more because the city of Jackson failed to pay contractors on time.

On Wednesday, officials with the city’s One-Percent Oversight Commission approved additional funding for the Riverside Drive Reconstruction Project, in part, to cover rising asphalt prices.

According to Commissioner Pete Perry, contractors are having to pay higher prices because the project has been delayed for months after the city didn’t pay the contractor for work completed. During that time, asphalt prices have increased.

“From the time they started until after November, they did not get paid, nor did the engineer,” he said. “So, just like on Terry Road, they pulled their folks off because they weren’t getting paid.”

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said he wouldn’t fight it if the commission didn’t want to cover the increase but said not doing so could delay the project even longer while the money is found elsewhere.

Perry said the commission should pay for it because it’s a commission-funded project. Even so, he questioned why the city fell behind.

“Did the city know? Yes, because they [the contractor] had monthly progress meetings with the city, and the city was told,” he said.

Commissioner Pete Perry discusses a project following a one-percent commission meeting.
Commissioner Pete Perry discusses a project following a one-percent commission meeting. (WLBT)

The Riverside project includes rebuilding the roadway from the I-55 North flyover bridge to Peachtree Street in Belhaven.

It also includes replacing and rehabbing the water and sewer lines underneath the roadway and adding walking and biking paths.

The Jackson City Council awarded a $13.8 million contract to Hemphill Construction in November 2021. A notice to proceed was issued in March of last year.

The initial work was expected to take 390 calendar days to complete. However, at a meeting on April 11, 2023, the council approved a change order to allow for an additional 291 days.

According to documents presented to the council at that meeting, the extension was needed due to “a number of unforeseen conditions,” including inoperable water valves that needed to be replaced, sewer conditions worse than originally believed, and the need to remove two extra trees along Riverside’s median.

The documents do not mention a lack of payment as a reason for the delay.

However, when asked at Wednesday’s one-percent meeting, Darion Warren, a project manager with Waggoner Engineering, the firm overseeing the work, said the lack of payment did contribute to it.

“In that change order, I don’t have it in front of me now, one of the contractors claims one of the delays was over timely payment,” he said. “Because of that, they didn’t completely pull off of the job, but they began to pull crews off of the job site.”

Lumumba, who is chair of the one-percent commission, acknowledged the city’s failure to make timely payments and said the city is working to address the problems behind it.

“We have had delays in payment, and we’ve been trying to work through those delays,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is one of the consequences.”

Jackson Chief Financial Officer Fidelis Malembeka said Wednesday’s meeting was the first time he heard about the delay with the Riverside project.

“I know that’s what the engineer said, but when I look at the payments, they’ve been fairly consistent,” he said. “I’m curious to find out what really happened.”

Malembeka, who also serves on the commission, said approximately $9.7 million has been paid to the contractor and engineer this year, with payments being made almost every month since October. He said around $2.5 million was paid on the project last year.

Delayed payments are nothing new for the city. In February, Perry said a contractor walked off a mill and overlay project along Terry Road also after not getting paid for months.

In March, Lumumba refuted Perry’s claims, saying contractors actually walked off a different job.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba(WLBT)

Malembeka acknowledged the problem the following month, saying in an April 6 memo that “recent emergencies and turnover within the city have contributed to greater than acceptable wait times in invoice processing, uncertainty regarding which contracts invoices relate to, and confusion about the appropriate method of invoice submission.”

Since then, he’s set up a repository email where vendors can send invoices. He’s also asked council members to inform him directly when contractors tell them they haven’t been paid.

“We’re in a good place,” he said. “We’re very close to getting that corrected.”

As for Riverside itself, the commission approved additional funding to cover cost overruns. The initial work was expected to run around $13.8 million. Today, it will cost an estimated $14.4 million to complete.

The project itself is expected to wrap up around January. And while Hemphill had taken workers off the project previously, workers were on site when WLBT visited Thursday.

People who use the road, meanwhile, are hopeful the work will wrap up soon.

Lee Simpson, director of football operations at Belhaven University, says with Riverside closed, it’s harder for people to access the campus.

Riverside serves not only the Belhaven neighborhood, but also Belhaven University, Millsaps College, and several nonprofit organizations.

“We get things delivered to the university or [try] to tell scouts or other coaches, ‘hey, this is how you get here,’ and they get to Riverside and get a little mixed up because of the road,” he said. “I think everyone’s ready for it to be ready.”

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