CLEARWATER — Tampa Bay Water's board will ask a federal judge to grant a new trial in its $73 million lawsuit against the company that designed its cracked reservoir, but has not decided yet on appealing last week's jury verdict against the utility.
However, utility officials said ratepayers are unlikely to see any increases for some time.
The board met Monday with attorney Richard Harrison for the first time since a jury rejected the utility's claim against HDR Engineering. Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand, a Pasco County commissioner, announced the board would hold a 45-minute closed-door session with Harrison —- and then the board members took twice that long discussing the outcome of the case and what to do next.
Afterward, one board member, Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield, made a motion to fire Harrison and hire someone else to pursue the case. His motion died for a lack of a second.
"When I learned today that we didn't hire a jury consultant and the other side did, that led me to believe we needed new legal representation," Brickfield explained later.
Harrison, in an interview, contended that what made the difference in the case was not the lack of a jury consultant. Instead he pointed to a series of rulings by U.S. District Judge James Whittemore that limited or blocked Tampa Bay Water from presenting much rebuttal to HDR's case.
For instance, he said, Whittemore did not allow witnesses to testify about HDR's role in inspecting the reservoir's construction or to show photos of how the cracking continued this month. Those points are likely to be addressed in a motion for a new trial, he said.
Tampa Bay Water, which provides wholesale water to 2 million Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough county customers, filed suit four years ago against HDR to help pay the estimated $122 million cost of repairing the 15.5-billion gallon C.W. Bill Young Reservoir in rural Hillsborough County.
Nebraska-based HDR designed the $146 million reservoir, which opened in June 2005 to store water from the Tampa Bypass Canal and the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers. Workers first discovered the cracks in December 2006. Some cracks stretched 400 feet and 15½ inches deep and wouldn't stay patched.
After a monthlong trial in Tampa federal court, though, a jury took less than four hours to decide HDR bore no responsibility for fixing those cracks. HDR's attorney had argued that the reservoir worked just fine and the cracking was only a cosmetic problem.
The board has hired Kiewit Construction for $162 million to design a way to repair and expand the reservoir by 3 billion gallons. During Monday's meeting, board member Mark Sharpe, a Hillsborough County commissioner, asked about the cost of just repeatedly patching the cracks.
Patching costs between $500,000 and $2 million a year, engineer Jon Kennedy said. But what hurts the utility more, he said, is that when cracks appear, state regulators limit how much water can be put into the reservoir.
Still, "many of us are still unsure about the expansion of the reservoir," another board member, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, said after the meeting. "I am."
The utility's director, Gerald Seeber, contended that expanding the reservoir still makes sense as a way to guarantee a ready supply of water during times of drought.
So far Tampa Bay Water has incurred about $10.6 million in legal fees. HDR will likely file a motion seeking to get Tampa Bay Water to pay its legal fees and costs, a claim the utility anticipates to be between $13 million and $18 million.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.