Ceres grills firm, agrees to pay more

CERES -- The fairy shrimp reared its small endangered head this week when an inadequate environmental study put an engineering firm in the cross hairs of the City Council.

Nolte and Associates came Monday night hoping that the council would approve expected cost overruns in its project plan and study of the proposed Mitchell-Service roads interchange for Highway 99.

The original environmental impact report was rejected by Caltrans because the state wanted a more detailed approach that would include widening the highway to eight lanes and moving 99 slightly to the east.

The fairy shrimp came up because that issue was not addressed in the EIR as required by the California Department of Transportation.

The animal, on the federal endangered species list, is about the size of the head of a pin and lives in seasonal pools where there are no fish. The fairy shrimp was responsible for the University of California at Merced being built at a different site than originally planned.

As it is, Ceres' contract with Nolte has more than doubled in cost, to nearly $1.4 million. The fairy shrimp, if habitat is found, could escalate the cost.

Councilman Ken Lane shook his head at the contract change and explanations from Nolte.

"We just keep going deeper and deeper," he said. "We're not a well that you can just keep digging money from."

The eventual cost to build the interchange could pass $70 million or $80 million, $31 million of which would come from a proposed countywide transportation sales tax measure, should the voters pass it in November.

The amended contract calls for Nolte to get an extra $763,378 while absorbing $200,000 in overruns.

When Nolte's project manager blamed much of the problem on looking "through rose-colored glasses" to please the client, Mayor Anthony Cannella scolded him.

"How can you think we'd want you to tell us 'through rose- colored glasses,' " he said. "You're the professionals."

After the dressing down continued for 10 minutes, the mayor entertained a motion to amend the contract with extra funds. The resolution passed 5-0.

City Manager Brad Kilger wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding. The extra money was for extra work, not mistakes, he said.

On the next item before the council, the city was asked to absorb more costs from a construction supervision contract shepherding through Fire Station No. 4 by Harris and Associates.

When the firm was about to endure the grilling Nolte got, Kil-ger intervened.

"We tried to do too much, too fast," Kilger said, adding that it was his fault.

The council voted 5-0 to pay Harris $70,000 extra for work "out of scope" and time needed to complete supervision.

Staff writer Roger W. Hoskins may be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.