BROOKSVILLE — The work is stalled but the finger-pointing is going strong in the channel dredging project at Hernando Beach.
Contractor Orion Dredging Service LLC now says the county's consultant, Halcrow Inc., made the mistakes that have idled the long-awaited project to widen and deepen the channel.
Top officials from Orion asked the county commissioners for a meeting to discuss the situation, and the board agreed to a special meeting at 1 p.m. Friday in the commission chambers.
Meanwhile, State Sen. Mike Fasano's office this week announced that the state's matching money for the dredge, as much as $6Â million if the work costs $9Â million, is safe for another year.
The extension to June 2011, confirmed verbally between Fasano and the state Department of Transportation, is contingent on the work actually getting done.
In a Monday letter to the county, Orion made clear that it wanted a full and public airing of the issues at hand.
"Due to the incomprehensible and suspicious attempts by HCDPW (Hernando County Department of Public Works) to hold ODS responsible for Halcrow's error and omissions, we are willing to meet and request the majority of the County Commission be present,'' the letter said.
That prickly comment was included in a 10-page response to the county from Orion's executive vice president and general counsel, Peter Buchler. Last week, County Attorney Garth Coller ordered Orion to meet with the county, fix the environmental concerns about the work and get back on track.
The latest exchange of letters has the county and Orion wrangling over who is responsible for the design of a plan to drain the spoils as they are sucked out of the channel and piped to the county's old wastewater treatment plant on Shoal Line Boulevard.
The dredging work was stopped in January when neighbors complained that the water being piped back into a nearby canal was loaded with sediment, more than what the state permit allows. State environmental regulators shut the project down with only 6 percent of the dredging done.
Since then, various proposals have been discussed on how to get enough silt out of the water, including using a coagulant and settling ponds.
In the letter from Coller to Orion last week, Coller asserts that the contractor has "failed or refused'' to solve the problem "despite its clear responsibility to do so under the contract documents.''
As the parties have met to talk about solutions, Orion "continually made it clear that it was not providing design services to HCDPW or Halcrow and therefore cannot be held responsible for design issues and risks,'' Buchler wrote.
Orion's cooperation by producing drawings of Halcrow's designs "does not result in ODS becoming responsible for the design,'' he wrote.
Orion's attorney told the county attorney, "to say there is a material and fundamental disagreement between our two clients' different positions cannot be overstated. In essence your client is attempting to distort the relationship it has with my client.''
Commissioners concerned about just that kind of blame game on Tuesday tried to get a commitment from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that issued the dredge permit, to attend Friday's meeting.
Representatives from Halcrow and the county will be there. County staff said they would continue to try to get someone from DEP to attend the meeting or monitor it. County Administrator David Hamilton said the agency's main role at this point is to ask the county to submit its plan for review, whoever designs and sends it.
In other business
• Commissioners recommitted themselves to various aspects of their new economic development plan but stopped short of committing how much money to add to existing incentives or buying land for large firms that might be interested in a site in the county in the future.
The commission did agree to let business development director Mike McHugh explore where additional funding might be found and how to tie up big, attractive manufacturing and industrial sites with leases or other agreements. He also is to continue talking to interested parties about developing a possible higher education facility within the county.
• After hearing a presentation about the federal IMAGE program that partners the federal government with local businesses and government entities to ensure all employees are legal, commissioners decided to follow a program like one in Hillsborough County and asked staff to bring back such a program for formal consideration.
The county would use a program called E-Verify to check employees and would agree to a federal audit.
Commissioners would tell future contractors and vendors that they expected them and their subcontractors to either use E-Verify themselves or follow the law requiring all their workers to be legal.
The commission stopped short of mandating compliance or agreeing to monitor their future contractors or vendors.
• Commissioners discussed changes to the county's sign ordinance that might address the bright, animated signs that have begun appearing on U.S. 19 and other roads as well as other sign rules. But they could not reach consensus on what needed to be changed other than toning down the electronic signs.
They asked their staff to bring back additional information for their consideration.
• Commissioners discussed and heard public comment on exploring a charter government, an idea raised by Commissioner Jim Adkins. But after discussing whether to form a committee or write a charter, the commission could not reach a consensus to move forward.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.