SOUTH PORTLAND — A concrete subcontractor on the city’s $15.7 million municipal services facility project has filed a lawsuit seeking payment from the general contractor, Great Falls Construction of Gorham, a move indicating there’s been some trouble at the building site off Highland Avenue.

Mathias Bickmore, owner of Bickmore Concrete Contractor of Newport, says Great Falls fired his company twice last September and ultimately left him with $63,000 in unpaid bills after he provided quality services and materials under erratic and unprofessional conditions.

Bickmore’s court action also brings to light that another contractor with the city – SMRT Inc. of Portland, the architecture and engineering firm that designed several buildings at the facility – was removed from the project last August but continues to work on other city jobs.

“My grandfather was one of the first foundation contractors in Maine,” Bickmore said. “I grew up doing concrete and this is the first time I’ve seen such a disorganized job.”

Meanwhile, Great Falls and city officials say the project is on budget and on track to be completed in November – five months later than initially projected. Located on the former site of the city’s solid waste transfer station, which was rebuilt next door, the public services facility at 929 Highland Ave. will house the city’s public works, parks and transportation maintenance divisions.

Bickmore filed suit in Cumberland County Superior Court in January, claiming that his crews delivered and poured concrete as contracted, but Great Falls has paid only $13,000 of $76,000 that he spent for labor and materials, he said. Great Falls initially contracted Bickmore to pour $215,000 in concrete, including the main building of the public services facility, but Bickmore only worked on the salt shed and another storage building.

Bickmore said Todd Desmarais, project manager for Great Falls, fired his crew in early September after four cracks appeared near doorways in the foundation of the 16,200-square-foot salt shed. Great Falls has built a variety of residential, commercial and municipal projects in southern Maine, including Westbrook’s new public services facility.

DESIGN AND PERFORMANCE CONCERNS

Bickmore, who has a civil engineering degree from the University of Maine, attributed the cracks to a faulty steel rebar design by the building’s architects. He pointed out a lack of steel cross-bracing to Desmarais before the concrete was poured, Bickmore said, but his warning was ignored. He tried to raise his concerns at a project meeting, but Desmarais didn’t allow him to attend the meetings, Bickmore said.

“I always attend project meetings,” said Bickmore, whose company received strong written recommendations for recent work with Cianbro on the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine.

Desmarais rehired Bickmore’s company in mid-September when Great Falls couldn’t find another concrete contractor on short notice, Bickmore said. After two weeks back on the job – this time without a contract – Bickmore grew concerned Great Falls wasn’t carrying proper insurance for his use of a crane at the construction site. When Bickmore asked Desmarais if Great Falls had crane liability coverage, Desmarais fired him again, Bickmore said.

Bickmore said he was fully insured, but he had numerous safety and scheduling issues with Great Falls. When his crew showed up as directed in mid-June to work on the main building of the public services facility, shop drawings for the foundation weren’t ready, so his crew shifted gears and went to work on the smaller salt shed instead. An email exchange with Desmarais shows the shop drawings for the main building were ready at the end of June.

Desmarais declined to discuss Bickmore’s allegations because the subcontractor’s court claim has yet to be settled. The two companies are moving toward mediation, which won’t be resolved until later this year, said William Childs, Bickmore’s lawyer. The city of South Portland was removed from the lawsuit in March by mutual agreement of all parties.

Great Falls’ court filings include two performance deficiency letters, signed by Bickmore and Desmarais in August, that outline a variety of safety, staffing, scheduling and performance problems it had with Bickmore’s work, including “failed concrete placement.” A subcontract termination letter, signed by both men in September, coincides with Bickmore’s recollection of the first firing.

Bickmore, who is 28, said he shouldn’t have signed the letters because he didn’t agree with the terms, but the whole experience has taught him some important lessons as a young business owner.

“Had I known, I would have steered clear,” Bickmore said.

CITY OFFICIALS PLEASED OVERALL

Desmarais said Bickmore’s performance had no impact on the structural integrity or the cost of $15.7 million the project. Whatever cracks appeared initially near doorways of the salt shed are now buried beneath concrete, Desmarais and Bickmore said.

Brad Weeks, the city’s engineering division manager, said he didn’t know Bickmore and had no knowledge of performance or communication issues between Bickmore and Desmarais.

Weeks said city officials are pleased overall with the work being done by Great Falls and Sebago Technics, a South Portland engineering, planning and surveying firm that he said has been the lead consultant on the public services facility project from the start.

He said SMRT “did a good job” designing the buildings for the public services facility before city officials decided to remove the firm from the project last August.

“We had some differences in direction going into construction,” Weeks said. “We felt we needed more experience in construction.”

Weeks said Allied Engineering of Portland has assumed SMRT’s duties on the project. SMRT didn’t respond to a call for comment.

Former Mayor Tom Blake, whose term ended in December, recalled that the city removed SMRT from the public services facility project because there were a variety of scheduling and operational issues at the work site.

Both Sebago Technics and SMRT have general service contracts with the city because their staffs consult regularly on municipal projects, Weeks said. Sebago Technics is helping the city develop a reuse plan for the existing public works site on O’Neil Street, and SMRT is working on a $53,000 renovation of the city’s sewer maintenance garage on outer Highland Avenue, he said.

“SMRT is a good company,” Weeks said.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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