A dispute over a jail construction project in Florida has taken a new turn as the Escambia County commissioners voted to terminate their contract with Whitesell-Green/Caddell for the $142 million project, nearly two years after the facility opened. Contractors say the COVID-19 and hurricane-related delays should be excusable, while the county says the work is still not legally completed. 

The design-build contractor, a joint venture of Pensacola, Fla.-based Whitesell-Green Inc. and Montgomery, Ala.-based Caddell Construction Co., filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit in state court last year alleging the county still owed them about $3.5 million for work performed on the project. That suit is ongoing.

Construction of the 304,000-sq-ft, 840-bed Escambia County Correctional Facility began in 2018 and was originally due to complete in the summer of 2020. The contractors say the project reached substantial completion in February 2021 after dealing with delays tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Testing and quarantine requirements sometimes prevented crews from working, according to the lawsuit. Manufacturing shutdowns and supply chain snarls caused late deliveries of materials. Those delays then pushed work into hurricane season. Hurricane Sally halted work for a week, and Hurricane Zeta closed down a specialty glass manufacturer supplying the project. 

The delays were excusable under the terms of the contract, the builders argue in their suit. They say they updated the county on the encountered delays during regular meetings, but that by the time they turned over the substantially completed project, the county had still not acted on the delays. 

Officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the jail in March 2021 and the sheriff’s office says the facility opened that spring. At the time, Escambia County Corrections Chief Rich Powell called it a “better, secure and safer environment” for inmates and staff alike.

The county says the project was 224 days late and that it was allowed under the contract to withhold payment, though the contractors say it was just 189 days which should have been deemed excusable. DLR Group, which the county had hired as design criteria professional for the project, found that at least 118 days of delay were excusable, and potentially more. However in August 2021, county officials agreed to grant just 33 days of excusable delay. Additionally, the county was 16 days late in paying the contractor under the Florida Local Government Prompt Payment Act even after subtracting the disputed $3.5 million, according to the suit.

Final Completion

Richard Fillmore, an attorney representing the county in the contractors’ suit, said during a county commissioners meeting Jan. 19 that the key focus now should be final completion, rather than substantial completion. Fillmore says the builders have not finished contractually required items like having the architect sign off on the completed punch list items and providing as-built plans signed by the engineer-of-record. 

“They have not reached final completion from a legal perspective,” he says.

County commissioners voted to terminate the contract with Whitesell-Green/Caddell after hearing Fillmore’s presentation. An attorney representing the contractor did not immediately respond to inquiries about the move. In recent filings, attorneys for the contractor say the county has dragged its feet in the case and a county official ignored their efforts to schedule a deposition under subpoena.

The county also moved in November to file a third-party complaint in the case against DLR Group, alleging the consultant’s review of Whitesell-Green/Caddell’s work “was woefully inadequate and superficial at best.”

An attorney representing DLR Group was not immediately available to comment, but they filed a motion to dismiss the complaint this month arguing that the company is not responsible for any damages.