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Fight over hurricane shelter standards was all for naught

The news late last year stalled a much-needed hurricane shelter for Pasco and Hernando counties: New federal standards could push costs up by $4.2-million.

As a contract to build the shelter in Hudson waited, Pasco County enlisted Florida's emergency management director and won a waiver from the tougher requirements in June.

By then, state lawmakers had added $2-million as a safety net — bristling at rules that were going to drive costs up 50 percent. There were even threats to go to Congress.

But on Monday, the County Commission is expected to end the ordeal this way: Vote to build using the tougher standards.

The shelter's cost turned out to be within the $7.5-million paid with federal and state grants. And building to lower standards would only save $20,000, according to estimates provided by the company hired in June to build and construct the shelter.

In fact, lower standards actually could leave the project costing $200,000 more, if tests are required.

What happened to the increase?

"That's what I'd say was not a reliable figure," assistant county administrator Dan Johnson said Friday.

Johnson said the extra cost was estimated based on conversations with state and federal officials when few buildings had been constructed using the new standards.

The new standards require building to withstand 200 mph winds instead of the original 160 mph, and protect against the most dangerous tornadoes — a rarity in Pasco that county officials said would most drive up the cost.

The waiver exempted Pasco from the tornado standards, and lowered the wind standard to 190 mph. It also allowed Pasco to keep the $2-million federal grant.

The estimated increase also came when Pasco had only a conceptual design of the product.

"I think the major thing we want to make sure is we build it the best building we can," said County Commissioner Jack Mariano, whose district includes the project.

Pasco sought the regional shelter because of a 20,000-bed shortage in shelters.

But the project hasn't seen its first brick since lawmakers led by state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, approved it in 2006. Asked if the county spent valuable months in an unnecessary fight over rules, Johnson said:

"I'll let you draw your own conclusions. But we're just wanting to move forward and get the project built with the lowest cost in the quickest amount."

Fasano, who wants the shelter built quickly to avoid losing money, said he blamed federal officials for changing the standards after money was approved. As for the time spent fighting those standards?

"We can always be Monday morning quarterbacks, but I don't want to go back in time," he said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

Fight over hurricane shelter standards was all for naught 09/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 11:05am]
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