BROOKSVILLE — More than 16 years in the making, the fate of the Hernando Beach Channel dredge project is on life support after the County Commission decided this week to fire its contractor.
Facing a tight time line, limited finances and the likely potential of litigation, county staffers were regrouping on Wednesday with a flurry of activities focused on keeping the project alive.
Meanwhile, county commissioners who endured a four-hour public hearing on Tuesday were thinking about all the facts, figures and rhetoric presented to them.
In the county attorney's office, work continued on a resolution formalizing the commission's choice to find that Orion Dredging Services LLC had breached its contract with the county. A letter will soon go to Orion's surety bond firm, Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.
What happens next depends on Liberty Mutual. The firm can deny the claim, can find another contractor to finish it, or can give the county the money to finish the dredge.
That leaves the county in limbo for 30 days, according to Lisa Hammond, the purchasing and contracts consultant for the Clerk of the Circuit Court.
County officials are talking to dredge and dewatering experts for ideas on how the county might restart the project and get it done by their June 30, 2011, state funding deadline.
The problem is that after Orion could not get enough sediment out of water it was dredging along with the other matter, known as spoils, being hauled out and thus failed to meet state environmental standards, a new plan was devised.
That plan required the building of settling ponds and the use of a coagulant. The permit the county has is for building that system.
But that system is expensive. While Orion's original contract with the county was $5 million, the company asked for another $7.8 million to build and operate the new dewatering system.
That's when county officials put the brakes on, since that was millions of dollars more than what Hernando has in its budget for the project.
Hammond said one option might be to revisit an earlier state permit if a different solution can be found that is cheaper and still can be quickly approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The county is also considering cutting costs for a new contractor by handling the dewatered spoils materials itself. By hauling it to the county landfill, it would save the contractor from paying landfill fees.
That might create other problems, however.
In a memo last week to County Administrator David Hamilton, utilities director Joe Staph warned that there would be an impact on the landfill of taking on 46,000 tons of material and losing $2.5 million in tipping fees.
He also noted that tests on the spoils would be necessary to determine where they could be properly placed. On the positive side, Stapf noted that, if the materials were of the right composition, it could be used to cover the open landfill each day.
County commissioners reached on Wednesday had varying degrees of comfort with the question of whether the dredge will even be possible.
Chairman John Druzbick and Commissioner Rose Rocco, whose district includes Hernando Beach, were cautiously optimistic that the staff would find a way to make the project happen.
Rocco said the work was a priority and commissioners had made it very clear to Hamilton that it should be treated as one. "We're going to push to get it done,'' she said.
"I'm sure Orion didn't want to lose this because it's work. There are a lot of hungry contractors out there,'' Druzbick said. "I believe we will be able to find a contractor who can do it.''
Druzbick was more concerned about whether that can be done in the time allotted.
Commissioner Dave Russell, who helped secure the state matching funds when he was in the state House, said he was glad that some small amount of the work was done but that more was needed. It is estimated that Orion performed 6 percent of the project dredging.
"It all comes down to money,'' Russell said, noting that the county has approximately $4.8 million to spend to complete the job.
"Until we've got all the alternatives and options in front of us, it's difficult to say what will happen,'' he said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who questioned Tuesday whether Hamilton's job is on-the-line for completing the dredge, said on Wednesday that he was "extremely doubtful'' that the dredge will happen.
"I am extremely discouraged and frankly tired of getting multimillion-dollar administrative blunders while we're trying to save tens of thousands of dollars in other places,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.