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Even after vote, Tampa Bay Water reservoir settlement no sure thing

If Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe had known there was going to be a vote Monday on settling Tampa Bay Water's 2-year-old lawsuit against the company that designed its reservoir, he said Tuesday, he would have shown up and voted for it.

But without Sharpe, the $30 million settlement fell one vote shy of approval, so the final decision is postponed until Oct. 17 — and now Sharpe says he is leaning toward voting against the settlement.

"Daggone it," he said, "it's the ratepayers who are going to be stuck for a portion of this cost, and that's not right."

Sharpe was one of two board members of Tampa Bay Water who missed Monday's closed-door session to discuss the ongoing lawsuit against HDR Engineering over cracks in its 15.5 billion gallon reservoir — a session that resulted in a 4-3 vote to approve the settlement, one vote short of the five needed. Thinking it was just an update on the case, Sharpe, a congressional candidate, attended a Hillsborough transportation committee meeting instead.

The other absentee was Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, who's recovering from surgery. Miranda did not say Monday how he would have voted, except to note that he's "kind of a Mississippi riverboat gambler" rather than someone who only picks the safest options.

For nearly two years, Tampa Bay Water officials have said they hoped the companies that designed and built the reservoir would bear most, if not all, of the $122 million cost of fixing its cracks. Their suits against two of the contractors were settled for $6.75 million, leaving one suit outstanding: the one against the reservoir's designer, HDR, scheduled for trial next month.

During closed-door discussions by the utility board, settlement amounts were bandied about — $10 million, $12 million, $20 million —- and rejected by Tampa Bay Water, according to Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield, who also voted against the latest settlement proposal.

Board members who voted for the settlement, such as St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse, said they believed it was the best way to avoid being tied up in court for years and possibly winding up with no money at all from HDR.

Sharpe said he had felt the same way Monday. "I was leaning toward voting for the settlement, but (now) I am leaning toward voting against the settlement," he said Tuesday. "I believe there's a culpable party, and it's not the ratepayers."

The utility opened the 15.5 billion-gallon C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in June 2005 as a place to store water skimmed from the Alafia River, Hillsborough River and Tampa Bypass Canal. The embankment's top layer is a mixture of soil and concrete to prevent erosion. That's what cracked in several places in December 2006.

Last month Tampa Bay Water approved a contract with Kiewit Infrastructure South to repair the reservoir and also boost its capacity by 3 billion gallons for $156 million.

The decision on how to pay for the work — and whether it will mean a rate hike — will come next year, said Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber. The staff is predicting rates might go up 10 to 15 cents per thousand gallons of water used. The average Tampa Bay area household uses about 8,000 gallons, so that would be 80 cents to $1.20 per month on the average bill.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com

Even after vote, Tampa Bay Water reservoir settlement no sure thing 09/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 10:57am]
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