Austinmer pool plans were flawed but Wollongong Council would not compromise, says contractor forced into liquidation

Michael Lee at the Austinmer pools as the storm hit on Friday afternoon. More than two years after he folded his firm, the pool restoration job is not complete. Picture: Sylvia Liber
Michael Lee at the Austinmer pools as the storm hit on Friday afternoon. More than two years after he folded his firm, the pool restoration job is not complete. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Council designs for the Austinmer pool renovation were flawed and not realistically able to be completed, claims the contractor whose company went into liquidation on the job.

Michael Lee’s company Specialised Marine Services was awarded the tender for the pool restoration works with an approximate cost of $700,000 and a finishing date of November 27, 2014.

But just days before that date he put SMS into liquidation after Wollongong City Council (WCC) warned him it would apply “liquidated damages” of $500 a day if the project went over time, Mr Lee said.

In fact the project has taken more than two years longer. Now, under a new contractor, it is still not complete, the price tag has blown out to at $1.7 million and there is no finishing date.

Last year WCC’s director of infrastructure and works Mike Hyde said completion was “in the hands of the gods”. These facts, Mr Lee says, show how difficult the job was. 

With his company being liquidated he approached the Mercury to tell his side of the story in the hope he could recoup more than $100,000 he said is owed to creditors. He said the WCC plans:

  • Underestimated the size of a cavity in the northern pool wall,
  • Did not properly consider a 200mm rise in sea level since the pool was built a century ago,
  • Could not be achieved without temporary footings, and
  • Did not allow for flexibility or alternative designs.

Mr Lee said a tide of close to 0.0m was the only time work could be done – a handful of hours a year. He said a breakwall, or footings strip, could be built outside the pool – but a permit was needed from NSW Fisheries and WCC would not get one as it would take months.

Mr Lee said when he met with WCC managers to talk over options for varying the approach, he was told he had just days to finish it or he would be charged the $500 per day. Mr Lee said this was impossible, decided he had a “hostile client” and had no choice but to liquidate.

“They weren’t fair and reasonable.,” he said. “They were a hostile client as far as I’m concerned.

“I’ve done it before – I’ve worked with councils. I like tricky jobs. If it wasn’t for their design I would have got it done. The fact was, it was an unworkable design – and when we raised that with council they told us, basically, ‘too bad, build it’.

“The community has a right to know. The council needs to be accountable.”

He said he tried to enter mediation via the Small Business Commissioner but WCC refused to talk.

Wollongong council dodges queries on plans

The Mercury sent Wollongong City Council a list of detailed questions about the Austinmer pool design and the issues raised by Michael Lee.

But council, through its media unit, dodged all of the questions, other than saying it “strongly denied” all of the claims.

Questions about whether the design was flawed, whether council could have been more flexible, and why permits were not obtained from Fisheries, were ignored.

“Following the liquidation of Specialised Marine Services in late 2014, the liquidator has made several claims against Wollongong City Council. Council has strongly denied all of those claims,” a spokesman said.

“Affective Services is currently working through the challenging issues associated with this project.”

“Work to the pools require low-low tides and calm sea conditions.  While the tide conditions can be forecast, the size of the seas and swell are not able to be predicted.

”This week, the contractor has returned to site and, provided the tide, sea and swell conditions are suitable, will carry out further pre-cast panel installation works to the eastern wall of the southern pool and further  improvement works to the central concourse over the next few weeks.

“A stainless steel handrail to the eastern wall of the southern pool will also be installed.”

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