EAST LAKE — After spending more than $12-million and clearing more than 46 acres of the Brooker Creek Preserve, Pinellas County is taking another look at building a water plant on Trinity Boulevard.
Tom Crandall, the county's new director of utilities, said Thursday that his department is looking at options for replacing the aging Keller water treatment plant off Old Keystone Road.
"I'm just stepping back to make sure that what we do has the least impact on the budget and still meets our obligations," he said.
He said the project is ready to go and still may go forward. But first, he wants to consider not only the construction cost, but the cost to operate the new plant.
"I'm looking at options to potentially save money in the area of capital improvement and in the area of operational expense," he said.
In preliminary numbers, he said the cost to operate it would be $3.5-million a year.
"That equates to potential impact on the rates (for water)," he said. "We want to be careful that we don't impact the rates any more than we have to."
So why wasn't all this considered before spending $12-million to clear the land, design the facility and get permits?
Crandall, new to the job, said he's sure those things were considered but "I think I owe it to the department and to the budget to make sure that the numbers all still make good sense."
The project has a history of false starts.
Pinellas County completed initial site work for a water treatment and pumping facility in the Brooker Creek Preserve in 2006, clearing 46 acres that have sat unused since.
The project stalled in late 2006 when the price came in at about $105-million, which was $30-million more than Pinellas County Utilities was expecting.
At a December 2006 meeting, county Commissioner Bob Stewart closely questioned Pick Talley, the former director of utilities, on whether the new plant was really needed.
Talley said the Keller plant was built in 1955, and when pumps go down, parts must be fabricated. He equated the Keller facility to an old car that needs to be traded in. And he said that although county water supplies meet all current state and federal regulations, the new plant would improve water quality.
Then the construction industry fell on hard times, the estimated cost to build the plant dropped and the project seemed to be moving forward again.
Crandall said the current construction estimate is $80-million.
He would not go into the other options in any detail, but said there's not room to build the new plant, as designed, on the Keller site.
There could be additional room available if the county buys the adjacent Eldridge-Wilde wellfield. County officials say that purchase is imminent.
Crandall isn't counting on that, he said.
"We're still moving forward with the thought that the blending plant site is the appropriate site for it," he said, but the Keller site could work if it could be expanded.
After Thursday's work session, Commissioner Karen Seel was more hopeful.
Two years ago when the plant site was chosen, the county did not know the wellfield purchase might finally go through. When it does, "We'll have another discussion of the whole blending plant issue," she said.
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.