TARPON SPRINGS — City officials expect the new water plant project to finally flow smoothly, now liberated from the most recent threat of delay.
Garney Construction, the second-ranked bidder for the contract to build the $35 million project, dropped its protest this week of the city's decision to award the contract to another bidder.
The protest would have been only the most recent holdup in a project that has faced years of delays, including litigation over environmental concerns.
"While our client, the Garney Companies Inc, believes strongly that its protest has merit and that the Garney proposal should have been selected, Garney appreciates the need of Tarpon Springs to move forward with this project without further delay or expense," Garney attorney Edmund T. Baxa Jr. wrote in an email to Tarpon Springs purchasing administrator Jay Jackus.
Garney's change of heart frees the project from several obstacles that probably would have led to delays.
A previously scheduled hearing on the bid protest is now cancelled. If the arbitrator had sided with Garney, the city might have had to throw out all of its bids and start over. That would have postponed the project for several months.
If the bid process took long enough, city officials worried, they would be forced to reapply for the financing needed to launch the plant.
Now the project is slated to begin next month and end in early 2015, pending the City Commission's approval during the Feb. 5 meeting.
Among other complaints, Garney had argued that contract winner Wharton-Smith broke state law by not following bid procedures or including required information. The city hit back with a point-by-point response, arguing that it has the right to choose the company best suited for the project.
Wharton-Smith's proposal will cost taxpayers $1.5 million more than Garney's. But Wharton-Smith earned extra points in the bid process based on its track record, which includes construction of water facilities in Palm Harbor and South Florida, said City Manager Mark LeCouris.
"In my mind, it's not always best to use the lowest bidder," LeCouris added. "Not if you have one business with much more experience."
Delays have plagued the water plant since 2002, when Tarpon Springs hatched the plan to move toward water independence. The project's aim is to allow the city to generate drinking water from pumps and wells, rather than buy it from Pinellas County.
During the filtering process, impurities will be flushed from the groundwater, and the leftover salty brine will be discharged into the Gulf of Mexico.
Among other delays, Tarpon Springs resident Henry Ross sued the city over concerns about how the wastewater would affect manatees and other wildlife.
"I think this (bid protest) was our last hurdle toward getting this thing moving," LeCouris said. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
Contact Brittany Alana Davis at [email protected] or 727-445-4144. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.