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Investigation into Oxbo Road project highlights series of failures from Roswell staff

Project faced repeated challenges over land purchases

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ROSWELL — An independent investigation has determined that delays and millions of dollars in cash settlements for the Oxbo Road realignment project was the result of 15 years of mismanagement by Roswell city staff.

The project, first proposed more than a decade ago, was introduced to solve a host of safety and mobility problems by eliminating the staggered intersection at Ga. 9 and converting the portion of Oxbo Road near Mimosa Boulevard into a two-way street. The realignment also calls for new turning lanes and a traffic signal on Ga. 9 and Oxbo Road, among other improvements.

Mayor Lori Henry released the full 34-page investigative report Sept. 30.

The document outlines 23 “problems” dating back to 2006 when the city began discussing the project. The law firm Jarrard & Davis took seven months to complete the investigation, costing the city more than $71,000 at last count.

An overview of the findings boils it down to three main issues, including the lack of a defined funding source, failure to have a timely utility relocation plan and improper and/or inefficient right-of-way acquisition procedures to purchase private property or access rights.

The team reviewed tens of thousands of documents including more than half a dozen, 2-foot-long, legal-size boxes of project files from six city departments. The material included meeting minutes, purchase and sales contracts, engineering reports, bid sheets and land parcel documents.

Investigators also contacted and reviewed documents from 11 firms, from consultants to construction companies, who have been affiliated with the project.

Investigators interview officials

The team interviewed close to a dozen current and former city officials, including Henry and former Mayor Jere Wood as well as former Transportation Director Steve Acenbrak, former Land Development Manager Clyde Stricklin and former City Administrator Kay Love. Requests for any additional information from members of the City Council received no response.

“Throughout our investigation, we found no indication that any of the city’s elected officials had any personal or individual involvement in the Oxbo Road realignment project or sought to provide any individual direction to city staff regarding the project outside of the official approvals by the City Council,” the report states.

The project was shelved in 2014 due to a lack of committed funding and was not revisited until after the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax vote passed in 2016. While initial estimates placed the cost of the project at $9 million, officials now estimate it will run closer to $14 million.

One reason for the increase cited in the report is a $2.5 million settlement agreement paid in February of this year to Benita, Alfred and Jason White. The settlement came after the city failed to provide the Whites with a pad-ready site for them to relocate their hardware store on or by the deadline of Oct. 25, 2020.

The city will have exceeded that deadline by more than a year. As of Oct. 5, the property is still under construction.

In 2017, the city purchased the White’s property at 685 Atlanta Street for $3 million because it contained right-of-way needed for the project, but the investigation found the property was not properly appraised according to state law before beginning negotiations, which happened several more times throughout the project’s history.

More expenses on land purchase

The report states that in 2018 the city paid Southern Pines Construction Group LLC $300,000 for several parcels and access rights at 64 Maple Street, including parcels the company was still under contract to acquire from property owner Leslie Reed.

The plan was for Southern Pines to close on its transaction with Reed and then to close on its transaction with the city. But Southern Pines never closed its transaction with Reed, nor did it refund the city any of the money it had paid for the parcels to account for the breach of contract, the report states.

Reed then accused the city in 2020 of trespassing when contractors began constructing stormwater drainage structures on her property.

In May, the city paid Reed another $299,000 for the acquisition of the property and access rights so that it could continue with the project, plus an additional $75,000 to tear down three buildings on the parcels. The report states that again, the city did not follow state law when Reed’s property was appraised before beginning negotiations.

The team recommended that once the required right-of-way for a project is determined and appraised, the city should consider condemnation for those property rights that it is unable to acquire by negotiation.

Investigators said that throughout their discussions and interviews with city staff and elected officials, it became clear the city never considered condemnation a viable option for acquiring real property for the project.

“This is sometimes necessary to keep a project on schedule and should be considered a useful tool in the city’s transportation project property acquisition procedures,” the report states. “To strictly rule out the use of condemnation as a viable option can result in overpayment for property interests.”

Georgia Power also had issues acquiring their own easements for utility pole relocation which is what “caused the significant delay and some of the rework of the design,” the report states.

Due to all the delays, the city will need to acquire new temporary construction easements to replace the ones that either expired or are set to expire within the next one to two years.

Roswell launches investigation into Oxbo realignment delays

To a great degree, the report states, the issues that resulted in delays and running the project over budget could have been avoided by proper adherence to established policies and procedures, and by designating a project manager. It also suggests creating a more robust agenda process that ensures issues do not appear for action by City Council until the issue has obtained appropriate technical and legal approval.

Mayor vows to take measures

In a statement released late Thursday afternoon, Henry said she and the City Council were aware there were issues with the project because of delays in construction but were surprised and disappointed to learn in the report of the extent of the issues, particularly with right-of-way-acquisition.

“The city’s own policies and procedures, best practices and state statutes either were not followed or were outright ignored when acquiring the right-of-way needed for the project,” Henry said. “Mayor and Council relied on the staff overseeing this aspect of the project to do their due diligence, but it is extremely evident in reading the report that they did not.”

Henry said it was “unacceptable” that staff members, some no longer with the city, failed to meet the City Council’s high standards. She also said the city would immediately begin implementing several of the recommendations listed in the report.

“I want to assure our citizens that the issues outlined in this report will never happen again,” Henry said. “We will be looking at everything including process, procedures and personnel. … I will be meeting weekly with council and the appropriate staff concerning implementing changes that are needed so what is outlined in this report never happens again. I will also be updating our citizens on a regular basis concerning the corrective action we will be taking.”

Henry said the project is expected to be completed in fall 2022.

To read the full investigative report by Jarrard & Davis, visit the city website at roswellgov.com/government/mayor.

Managing Editor Pat Fox contributed to this report.

Reach Chamian Cruz at 770-847-8079. Follow her on Twitter @xchamian.

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