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How Hernando made sneaky, stinky sewage decision

Sewage plants are boring, but bear with me, please, because they are also very expensive and absolutely necessary to keep us and our environment healthy. Plus, they promote economic growth and — as anyone who lives near a stinky one will tell you — quality of life.

So, decisions about where and how these plants are built are clearly worthy of public discussion. In fact, there aren't that many things more worthy.

But Hernando County commissioners have abandoned a $150 million long-range plan, approved less than four years ago, to modernize the county's entire sewage treatment system. And they did this over the phone and in private offices.

I'd call it a shocking display of government-in-the-shadows, except there was no display at all.

None, that is, unless you count the few minutes set aside for this matter at Tuesday's commission workshop.

I don't.

After all, nobody mentioned the cost of tossing out all of the engineering work we paid for in the old — or, really, not-so-old — plan.

Nor did anyone say a word about how much might be saved in future rate increases. Nor did the staff delve into the details about the capacity of the various plants around the county and how much longer they could be expected to last.

And, surely, it couldn't be a serious discussion if the one engineer on the commission, Nick Nicholson, suggested we don't need to close the foul-smelling plant on Osowaw Boulevard, part of which was built in the 1960s and is quickly rusting away from the inside out; maybe, Nicholson suggested, we could just cover it with a dome instead.

And finally there is conclusive proof that this was a charade rather than a real discussion:

The decision was made last week!

Yep, that's when the county hired Coastal Engineering Associates Inc. of Brooksville to start looking to see if the county had any cheaper options.

And how, exactly, did this happen?

Well, business big shot and Aviation Authority chairman Gary Schraut, along with a designated messenger for business big shots, Len Tria, started making calls to county commissioners.

Commissioners then talked to County Administrator Len Sossamon, who, in turn, passed the word on to Utilities chief Susan Goebel-Canning, who hired Coastal — with a contract small enough not to require competitive bidding but that might help it get bigger contracts in the future.

Maybe Sossamon went along with all of this because he's naive: He came to Florida, the land of government in the sunshine, less than a year ago.

Or maybe he's very savvy. After all, his predecessor, David Hamilton, lost his job after off-the-record calls were made to commissioners by some of these same people — a powerful reminder that it's smart to pay attention to such calls.

If this is all a sneaky plot to benefit some particular business interest, I can't prove it.

So it's possible Schraut and commissioners really are worried about the costs of the next phase of the long-range plan, a $40 million expansion of the sewage plant near the county airport. Maybe they genuinely believe the expansion is too much for our current modest rate of growth.

Fine. Then talk about it in the open. Before the decision is made.

How Hernando made sneaky, stinky sewage decision 01/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 8:08pm]
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