BROOKSVILLE — On Dec. 10, representatives of two dozen marine contractors and subcontractors gathered to talk about the Hernando Beach Channel dredging project.
They asked questions and raised concerns about the bidding process, all in preparation for submitting bids on the long-awaited project to lengthen, straighten, widen and deepen the 3-mile-long channel.
But when it came time to submit bids on Wednesday, only one came forward: BCPeabody. This is the same company county officials just two months earlier had considered giving the job to without any bids at all.
Representatives of several firms that decided not to bid told the Hernando Times this week that their reluctance was tied in large part to the county's current state dredging permit.
Had the county allowed bids on an earlier version of the state permit, which would have been less costly and less time-consuming, they would likely have bid.
That change might be coming, albeit likely too late.
Wednesday, county officials will meet with representatives of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to ask if the county can switch back to the previous permit.
If the answer is yes, the County Commission has a new problem.
How does that effect BCPeabody's bid, which is based on the current permit?
While county legal staff has said that the board can still award the job to BCPeabody, "ethically, I'd have a big problem doing that,'' Commission Chairman John Druzbick said Friday.
He said he would rather see the county get the previous permit back in place, then bid again.
"You have just cut out the possibility of some very good dredge companies,'' he said. "I will not just hand a permit modification to a bidder that did not bid on that permit.''
Another bid would also mean another delay and the commission decided months ago that they would have a contract on the project at the end of January or pull the plug on the dredge altogether. The dredge has been planned for 16 years and has been plagued with legal, financial and environmental problems.
Work must be finished by Jan. 1, 2012, or the county loses millions in state funding.
Druzbick said he is willing to take a little more time to get the project done at a cheaper cost.
On Wednesday, BCPeabody submitted a bid of $8.8 million for the project, $300,000 more than it was asking when the county was considering giving it the work without bidding. The county has just $4.5 million left of the original $9 million dredge budget.
The state committed to paying $6 million. If the dredge is canceled, the county would owe the state $3 million.
Going back to the old permit might entice more bidders.
Officials from Byrd Brothers Emergency Services LLC of Wilson, N.C., were very interested in bidding the project, according to Bruce Craine, vice president of the firm's earth and labor division.
But the company didn't have time to design the detailed settling ponds required by the permit and didn't want to be limited to just one particular coagulant, as required in the specs, to get sediment out of the water.
"We found it weird having our hands tied,'' he said. "We would have bid it if they had opened it up and allowed us to use another product.''
Craine also said it seemed odd that the county first had in the bid a provision to prohibit any firm from using subcontractors that had been removed from a dredging job in the last 10 years. That was dropped after the pre-bid meeting.
Transportation Services Director Susan Goebel said that the change was made after BCPeabody objected.
The change would allow BCPeabody to use the subcontractor it had proposed before, Piedroba Marine Construction. Depending on who you ask, PMC last year either left or was removed from a dredging job in Southern Shores, N.C., after failing to meet water quality standards.
Craine is familiar with the project because his firm is the guarantor of the performance bond held by the original contractor of the Southern Shores job. His firm, he said, is now completing that dredge "and fixing the problems with Piedroba.''
He said it would "not be normal etiquette'' for Hernando County to give BCPeabody the contract if the county switches from the current permit to the previous permit.
Robert Hendrick, of Clean to Green Inc. of Tavares, said he hopes the county can use the previous permit because his firm has the technology to get the job done. "We feel the project can be done and at a lot better price,'' he said.
Dennis Thomas of JND Thomas Co. Inc. of Riverdale, Calif., said the Hernando Beach project included a lot of risk including the pending lawsuit from the previous contractor.
But he said the county's unwillingness to be flexible on the coagulant was also a problem as was the complexity of the project.
Still, the county would have been better off to go with the previous permit, he said. "If they had gotten the change in the permit, they would have gotten more bids,'' Thomas said.
The previous permit was at a lower cost because it doesn't require a contractor to build a system of settling ponds and doesn't require the use of a specific coagulant to settle solids out of water in the dredge spoils. The failure to get enough of the sediment out of the water was why the DEP shut down the project a year ago.
The contractor then, Orion Dredging Services, was fired from the job and the county is now facing a lawsuit from the firm while also seeking payment from Orion's bonding company.
Goebel is researching options the commission can consider at its upcoming meeting.
She is to give an update to the board on Tuesday and the formal discussion on letting a contract is expected Jan. 25.