Tampa Bay Water approves controversial $1 million hiring contract

KPMG will help Tampa Bay Water hire a contractor for the $125 million job to repair cracks in the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times files

KPMG will help Tampa Bay Water hire a contractor for the $125 million job to repair cracks in the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir.

The board of Tampa Bay Water voted 5-4 Monday to spend nearly $1 million to hire someone to help hire someone to make costly repairs to its cracked reservoir.

Four board members, citing what one called "sticker shock," said they could not go along with the contract with KPMG. But five, citing past errors in hiring contractors on such projects as the desalination plant, said they believed KPMG would help them avoid future problems.

"Our reputation is on the line," said St. Petersburg City Council member Jamie Bennett, urging his fellow utility board members to approve the $908,000 contract.

"I know this is like a fishbone stuck in all our throats," Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said. Nevertheless, she said, "You have to get it done right."

Voting against the KPMG contract were Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel and Port Richey Mayor Scott McPherson.

Voting for it were Bennett, Hildebrand, Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala and Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe.

Higginbotham said he couldn't get past the "sticker shock" on the price KPMG was seeking for helping with the $125 million reservoir repair. Seel asked why the utility couldn't hire staff members with this kind of expertise to work on the reservoir fix and other projects as well.

Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber said the utility had been created in 1998 to be small. All of its engineers work on project management, not design, he said. Meanwhile its accountants oversee finances, he said, and thus lack the expertise to analyze the financial health of its contractors — one of the duties KPMG will undertake.

The utility sought KPMG's help to avoid what happened during construction of its desalination plant, when not one but two of its contractors went bankrupt. Ultimately the desal plant opened five years late and cost $40 million more than expected.

The board also voted unanimously to hire Black & Veatch to serve as "owner's engineer'' to represent Tampa Bay Water during the repairs. No dollar figure is attached to that contract yet. Black & Veatch also worked on the desalination plant.

In addition to hiring those two consultants, the utility is considering a contract with the National Research Council — an arm of the National Academies of Science — for scientific review of any repair plans prior to using them.

The 15 billion gallon reservoir, the largest in Florida, collects water from the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers. When the $140 million facility opened in 2005, utility officials touted it as the benchmark by which all future reservoirs would be measured. A year later the first cracks appeared, and now the utility is suing the companies that built it.

In other action, the water board agreed not to contest a $54,000 fine from the Southwest Florida Water Management District for pumping too much water out of the ground during the summer water shortage. Instead of handing the fine to the state agency, the utility will spend the $54,000 studying how much water could be saved using Florida-friendly landscaping.

Tampa Bay Water approves controversial $1 million hiring contract 10/19/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 12:14am]

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