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Hernando County officials clash over cleanup of old public works complex

BROOKSVILLE — The latest chapter in the long-awaited cleanup of the old public works complex on Tuesday saw a dustup among two Hernando department heads and the project's consultant.

At one point, County Commission Chairman Dave Russell had to gavel down a heated exchange between public works director Charles Mixson and purchasing director Jim Gantt.

As issue was the 13th change to the no-bid contract the county struck with consultant Creative Environmental Solutions Inc. in August 2005. The original contract amount was $77,051, but it has since swelled to more than $2 million.

The latest change would add another $45,500 to a project that so far has cost more than $4 million, and the cleanup of the contaminated site has yet to begin.

The county attorney's office flagged the change since County Administrator David Hamilton had determined months ago that any more work would have to be bid. Originally set for approval last week, the commission agreed to delay the decision until Tuesday.

Then came a flurry of memos.

Gantt recommended that the county seek bids for the new tests ordered by state environmental regulators.

"The board may approve the addition of this work to Creative Environmental Solutions Inc., as a supplement to the previous contract; however, it would seem prudent to procure this work on a competitive basis, in that it can be separated from the scope of work contracted to date,'' Gantt wrote.

"It is unfortunate that county engineering was not permitted an opportunity to discuss this recommendation prior to being presented to the board,'' Mixson fired back.

In his memo, he argues that the new tasks couldn't be easily separated and that Creative Solutions would have to participate in the testing to sign off as part of its cleanup plan.

He went on to warn that finding someone else to do the work at this late date might mean the county would miss deadlines with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

George Foster, president of Creative Environmental, wrote a five-page pitch to keep the county's business. He detailed all the problems the county had with its previous consultant and summarized what his firm has done since then.

"It is my understanding that certain factions in county government, possibly with pressure from private, out-of-county entities, have determined that CES should not be permitted to bring this project to completion under our current county contract and that the remaining tasks should be put out to bid,'' Foster wrote.

"Naturally, we would like to finish the project we essentially started and we feel it would be imprudent to change consultants when the end is so near,'' he wrote, warning that changing now would cause delays and drive up costs.

But when commissioners asked Gantt on Tuesday how long it would take to bid out the testing, he responded that he could advertise and have a response back to commissioners in just a few weeks.

Mixson countered that testing was part of the overall remedial plan and it had to be proved that the cleanup plan will work.

As the debate escalated, Russell slammed down his gavel and allowed Hamilton to propose a compromise.

Hamilton suggested that the commission grant this change but accept competitive proposals for the next phase of the project, the actual cleanup and monitoring of the work.

He said opening the work to other firms is a form of checks and balances. Having the same people who designed the fix monitor whether their plan actually works "is like marking your own exam,'' Hamilton said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to follow Hamilton's suggestion.

No work is likely to start anytime soon on the actual moving or treating of soil, however. The state will have to approve the county's remediation plan, and the county cannot even submit that plan until threat of legal action by the neighboring community can be settled.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County officials clash over cleanup of old public works complex 12/15/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 8:17pm]
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