TAMPA — Despite one board member saying he's received anonymous threats for expressing qualms about the project, Hillsborough County commissioners agreed Tuesday to study a plan to pipe treated wastewater to Polk County.
The vote came even though Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said a day earlier she's not willing to commit a key ingredient: most of the reclaimed water.
"We can move forward with our other partners," said Bart Weiss, director of the county's water management program. After the meeting, he added, "We have water, too. So does Lakeland. So do others. They just have the biggest chunk in one place."
While the vote was unanimous, Commissioner Jim Norman continued to voice anxiety about it. He said that he has received two anonymous calls to his house "strongly questioning my concern for the project."
Norman, who supports the concept, said he nevertheless wants assurances that the project will be open to public scrutiny and that future work on the project will be put out for competitive bidding.
Tuesday's vote formalizes an agreement between Hillsborough, Tampa, Mosaic Fertilizer and Tampa Electric Co. to explore ways to make greater use of Hillsborough's, and particularly Tampa's, reclaimed water.
Hillsborough officials have been in talks with the fertilizer giant and power company for months. Tampa Electric needs water for power plants it plans to build in Polk, and Mosaic needs water for future mining.
Polk doesn't have the water to spare. Meanwhile, Tampa dumps 55-million gallons a day of treated wastewater it can't use into Tampa Bay.
Hillsborough, Mosaic and Tampa Electric formed a nonprofit company, Water Partners Inc., to work on the project. The company is developing a proposal to pipe Hillsborough's excess reclaimed water, including Tampa's, to Polk, with Mosaic and Tampa Electric helping to pay for it.
Part of Norman's concerns is that, as a nonprofit, Water Partners' records are not required to be open to public scrutiny.
Weiss assured that it will be.
However, Norman read Water Partners bylaws that state that only officials with each partnering group can inspect the records, and only after swearing in writing why a record request is being made.
The county has already spent $300,000 on the exploratory effort, without accounting for how the money was spent.
Weiss assured the board that an audit will be performed, then disclosed under questioning that Water Partners will do the audit.
Finally, Norman sought assurance that Water Partners will solicit competitive bids for future work.
Weiss assured him it would.
But senior assistant county attorney Ed Helvenston said that future design work, to which the county will be asked to contribute $1.5-million, will not be offered for bids.
The project has already proved to be politically sensitive.
State Sens. Paula Dockery and J.D. Alexander, who represent Polk County, and Ronda Storms, who represents Hillsborough County, back the plan.
Storms and Alexander tried to block the reappointment of Southwest Florida Water Management District executive director Dave Moore because he has raised questions about the project. His concerns include oversight of public funds and the environmental impact of using reclaimed water to replenish the aquifer.
Staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.