Consultant: St. Petersburg has too many consultants working on its 900-mile sewer system
ST. PETERSBURG — The city has too many consultants advising it on how to run its 900-mile sewer system, the City Council learned Monday.
Who told them? A consultant.
The council spent the day hearing testimony from eight teams of consultants working on St. Petersburg’s wastewater system, and the picture that emerged was that of a city where no one is really in charge of its failing sewer system.
That’s because the work on individual sewer projects had been farmed out to consultants. No one entity — not city officials, not the consultants — was overseeing the big picture. Council member Darden Rice likened it to the parable of blind men examining an elephant. No one was able to grasp the problem in its entirety.
Despite paying for those squads of outside help, council members marveled at the absence of any kind of coordinated response to the city’s sewage crisis. St. Petersburg has released about 200 million gallons of sewage into neighborhoods, road and waterways since August 2015.
Some consultants who were hired to study the city’s system didn’t realize that the city had shut down one of its four sewer plants last year.
Brown and Caldwell, which wrote a 2014 study that predicted St. Petersburg’s sewage problems if the city closed the Albert Whitted waterfront sewage plant, said they thought city staff had been diligent in keeping track of individual projects.
But the firm said the city had too many consultants working on different parts of the city’s 900-mile sewer system and three remaining sewer plants.
No one oversaw the big picture, the consultants said.
“No one was responsible to make sure all the pieces fit together,” said Albert Perez, a Brown and Caldwell vice president who runs the firm’s operations in Florida.
Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley said he planned to install a project manager for wastewater projects. Tankersley was hired in the midst of the city’s sewage crisis. His predecessor Mike Connors abruptly retired in 2015. Last month, Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt and Engineering Director Tom Gibson were placed on unpaid leave by Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Having so many different consultants — at least three other firms were involved in the city’s sewage improvements — was a “recipe for disaster,” said City Council member Karl Nurse.
An exact figure was unavailable, but wastewater officials estimated that the city has spent several million dollars a year on sewer consultants.
Perez also confirmed that former wastewater officials had asked the firm to break up its work to keep projects costs below $100,000, the threshhold at the time for City Council review. That threshhold has since been lowered to $50,000.
Last month, Kriseman asked council to launch an independent audit to determine why elected officials never saw the 2014 study.
On Monday, Council member Ed Montanari asked Brown and Caldwell officials why they hadn’t spoken up at a 2015 meeting when the City Council asked about sewage capacity issues.
Firm officials said they didn’t think their study directly looked at that issue. They said they had not tried to hide anything, nor had they been asked to do so by city staff.
“Our name has been dragged in the mud a little bit,” said Chris Peluso, a senior vice president for Brown and Caldwell. “Our integrity is being questioned.”
Brown and Caldwell, which currently has a contract with the city on a program to turn waste into compressed natural gas at the Southwest sewage plant, promised to increase its communication with council members.
Council member Steve Kornell said consultants need to speak up if they see the city making poor policy decisions.
“Tell us if you think we’re doing something stupid,” he said.
The lack of coordination of all the consultants’ findings led the city to miss significant warning signs about its sewage problems, council members said.
The biggest blunder, said Council member Ed Montanari, was that the city didn’t reopen the Albert Whitted plant as quickly as possible after the first spills in August 2015.
“It’s hard to get my head around the fact that after the first spills last August, no one said let’s reverse what we did and then figure out what happened,” said Montanari.
In fact, an email discovered by Council chairwoman Amy Foster in a public records request showed that wastewater officials discussed reopening the shuttered plant in April. It was estimated to cost about $2.5 million by water reclamation manager Charlie Wise in an email to Leavitt.
But Tankersley, who had been hired two months before, wasn’t included in the email. On Monday, he said he knew nothing about it.
It wasn’t until this month that St. Petersburg committed to fully reopening the plant at a pricetag of at least $11 million for the start of next year’s rainy season.
Another consultant Eric Peters of Carollo Engineering told council members it would probably cost more and take longer than that to get Albert Whitted going again.