Romano: Is it still environmentally conscious if it’s based on a sham?

Construction has been ongoing at St. Petersburg's southwest sewage plant near Eckerd College. The city is working on a project that will convert biosolidste into energy, but City Council members just learned the cost will be higher than expected and the project will not produce as much energy as anticipated. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Construction has been ongoing at St. Petersburg's southwest sewage plant near Eckerd College. The city is working on a project that will convert biosolidste into energy, but City Council members just learned the cost will be higher than expected and the project will not produce as much energy as anticipated. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published April 26 2018
Updated April 26 2018

Let’s discuss biosolids waste. I promise, it won’t be gross or boring.

No, this is more of a how-did-we-lose-money-again bedtime story.

Our tale begins around 2006 when St. Pete officials began exploring a biosolids project. The city was eventually going to have to upgrade its disposal system and this plan would cut down on costs while producing energy and being environmentally sound.

To put it in a timeline:

• Consultants in 2011 initially said construction costs would be $42 million.

• By 2013, the price had risen to roughly $67 million.

• Even though the costs had increased, the City Council was told by staffers and consultants in 2016 that the project would eventually save taxpayers $31.6 million over a 20-year span.

• Today? Yeah, not so much.

The new configuration for costs is around $84 million, there won’t be as much energy produced and much of the $31.6 million in savings has gone bye-bye.

Guess whose utility rates may also go up?

"Now that it’s too late to stop it, we’re getting the full numbers,’’ said City Council member Steve Kornell, who was the only one to vote against proceeding with the project in 2016. "I know staff will say that wasn’t their intent, but it certainly does raise questions for me.’’

I promised I wouldn’t bore you with the details, so here’s the basic explanation:

Because this project has evolved over several administrations, and because city staff had a shakeup during the sewage crisis in 2015-16, it seems some of the projections were calculated differently.

Specifically, current public works administrator Claude Tankersley says he is using updated figures and is including all of the ancillary costs.

So, essentially, the figures given to City Council members in 2016 were based on 2011 projections that were kinda suspect to begin with.

"I wouldn’t have voted for this if I had known the savings weren’t going to materialize,’’ council member Ed Montinari said during last week’s council meeting.

Now this tale isn’t entirely one-sided.

The original $31.6 million in savings was a comparison to the status quo if the city did nothing. Tankersley, who arrived in St. Pete after the council made its decision, points out that costs for the status quo have also gone up.

And he suspects that, after more analysis, the city will discover it could still save some of that original $31.6 million.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin says it’s important to understand that the main reason the cost savings has nearly evaporated is because Tankersley has insisted on using accurate accounting.

But, taking a step back, that pretty much means council members were misled in 2016.

"Changes are going to happen with any major project,’’ said council member Amy Foster. "It’s the idea that this is a big project with major risks and benefits to the public, and council is just now hearing that we were basing decisions on artificial numbers.

"This is one of the biggest projects in the city, and frankly it looks like nobody was paying attention.’’

The shame of it all is that the project could have stood on its own. The city was eventually going to have to do upgrades, this technology is more cutting edge and it has an environmental benefit.

Yet, by playing fast and loose with the numbers, it now feels more like a scam than a step forward.

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