Cost draws city probe; Mayor orders inquiry into hauling contract $1 million over budget; Project is parking deck; Little Italy activist called attention to bills for extra work


Mayor Martin O'Malley has ordered a review of a city hauling contract in Little Italy that has exceeded its original bid by $1 million.

The city agreed to pay low-bidder Phipps Construction Contractors Inc. $427,025 to demolish and remove debris from the former Montebello Brands Inc. distillery at 400 S. Central Ave. and an adjacent property at 1205 Bank St.

Since the project began to convert the 70-year-old site into a city parking lot in January 1999, Phipps has submitted $1 million in extra work bills for the job.

Phipps' initial bid was 41.3 percent below the city engineer's project estimate of $727,500.

Phipps said its crews were forced to remove and dispose of unexpected contaminated material and a concrete floor buried on the property.

State Department of Environment inspectors, who are supposed to be notified about contamination, said they visited the site twice before the demolition began and found no evidence of contamination.

O'Malley has ordered Phipps' latest extra payment request of $57,000 delayed until public works officials can review the payments, which are more than triple the original bid.

O'Malley's review request was prompted by objections over the spending from Little Italy activist Roberto Marsili.

The retired stone mason said he watched the project and contends that Phipps was forced to remove original fill because it was the wrong material. Phipps removed the old fill and trucked in new dirt to complete the project, Marsili said.

Claude Edward Hitchcock, the attorney representing Phipps, declined to comment.

A review of MDE reports by The Sun shows that the state first checked on a dumping complaint on the property in March 1998. State inspectors reported finding railroad ties, pieces of furniture, old appliances and concrete slabs between buildings.

The state received another complaint in August 1998 that former building owners were removing 55-gallon drums of an unknown liquid from the site, dumping some in the building. In December 1998, MDE again visited the site and found no contamination.

MDE officials told project managers that contamination should be reported to the state. MDE officials said no contamination reports have been made on the site since its last visits before the demolition.

O'Malley has asked city Public Works Director George Winfield to report to the city Board of Estimates on the matter Wednesday.

O'Malley said he is willing to hire an outside auditor or investigator to review the project. The site has been converted into a $7.7 million parking garage that is expected to open by the end of the year to help alleviate night parking woes for Little Italy restaurants.

Marsili has criticized virtually every aspect of the garage project. He argued from the outset that it was too costly and not large enough to relieve the neighborhood's parking crunch. The structure will have 271 spaces, while Marsili contends up to 500 are needed.

Marsili also complained in vain last year about the contract to demolish the 70-year-old building that once occupied the site. He alleged the Schmoke administration gave Phipps a sweetheart deal, but the Board of Estimates in November refused to let him speak.

This month, Marsili also objected to the city's selection of PMS Parking to manage the garage for $322,000 a year. The low bidder was Maryland Parking Limited Partnership, a company run by Washington parking magnate Kingdon Gould Jr. and construction contractor Roger Blunt.

But city officials rejected the partnership's bid, saying they allegedly failed to answer questions properly in the application.

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