TARPON SPRINGS — Finally freed of legal entanglements, the city's new water plant project was hardly on again before it was off — again.
As city commissioners readied last month to review design proposals, a protest from the second-ranked bidder has put Tarpon Springs' largest capital project ever on pause.
"We fully expected someone to protest just because," said Jay Jackus, the city's purchasing administrator.
Just because, perhaps, the protesting company stands to lose out on a $35 million contract.
In letters, second-choice Garney Construction accuses Tarpon Springs of breaking state laws because the city's top pick didn't follow bid procedures or include all the necessary information.
Ranking competing construction company Wharton-Smith as No. 1 was "arbitrary and capricious," according to Garney.
Among the complaints — and Garney contests dozens of points — is the way Wharton-Smith calculated its project price. But even by Garney's re-calculations, Wharton-Smith would remain the first-place bidder.
Still, Garney argues, that's an unfair advantage. So the company is calling for the city to disqualify Wharton-Smith and use Garney's proposal instead — or throw out all the bids and start over.
In a point-by-point response, the city noted where Garney interpreted recommendations as hard-and-fast rules.
The city also reminded Garney of this line in the request for proposals: "… the 'City reserves and holds at its sole discretion, various rights and options including without limitations' the right to 'waive any minor informalities in the Proposals.' "
Wharton-Smith out-scored Garney in every category except price. Ranked superior in technical approach and quality of design, Wharton-Smith's proposal would cost almost $1.5 million more than Garney's.
But for this project, "we evaluated on more than just price," Jackus said.
The committee considered factors such as Wharton-Smith's track record with building water plants. According to its website, the company constructed Pinellas County Utilities' reclaimed water facility in Palm Harbor and a reverse osmosis plant in South Florida.
Tarpon Springs' reverse osmosis facility has been in the works since 2002. Officials planned it as a move toward water independence: Instead of buying drinking water from Pinellas County, the plant would filter groundwater pumped from wells. The reverse osmosis process pushes the brackish, salty water through membranes to remove impurities, producing 5 million gallons of drinking water a day.
The leftover salty brine eventually gets diluted and discharged into the Gulf of Mexico.
That's what concerned Tarpon Springs resident Henry Ross, who petitioned the state to hold up the project. He questioned how the wastewater would affect manatees, sea grass and sea turtles near the facility north of the Anclote River. It took years to resolve that challenge.
Construction was slated to begin next month and finish by the end of 2014. But all is on hold until an administrative hearing Jan. 23 on the bid protest.
If the hearing doesn't go Garney's way, the project could be further delayed if the company decides to sue.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]