CLEARWATER — The fledgling firm that operates Pinellas County's $800 million waste-to-energy plant plans to fight a county decision that would keep the company from trying to land a new contract.
The County Commission on Tuesday voted 6-1 to start negotiations with Covanta Projects and Wheelabrator Technologies, the two firms ranked highest by staff after the county put out a request for qualifications.
That means GCS Energy Recovery of Pinellas, the lowest ranked of the four companies that submitted qualifications, will not get to make its pitch to continue to run a facility that generates more than $50 million a year in revenue for the county.
"My concern is I don't have the expertise to overrule the staff's analysis that (GCS) isn't in a fiscal position to support this operation moving forward," Commissioner Ken Welch said before the vote.
GCS company president Dan Elias said after the meeting that the evaluation process was flawed. He plans to submit an official bid protest.
"I'm confident that at the end of the day and the end of the process, the facts will be clear, and they're not as they were represented today," Elias said.
The facility on 114th Avenue N in St. Petersburg burns garbage to produce steam that powers turbines. Duke Energy buys about 60 megawatts of electricity a year, paying a monthly $3.5 million "capacity" payment, plus another roughly $12 million annually. The plant operator is paid per ton of garbage processed. The contract for the operator can be worth as much as $35 million a year.
GCS took over in December 2012 after Veolia Environnement, a French company, sold its contract. The Pinellas plant is the first of its kind that GCS, which was founded in 2008, has operated. The facility was in dire need of repair.
When the production rate continued to drop early last year, threatening the county's contract with Duke, the county agreed to cover GCS's operating costs to help boost the production numbers and reduce the plant's emissions. In return, GCS agreed that its own contract, which was set to run through 2024, would end Dec. 31, 2014, and the county would put the operation contract out to bid.
"What we agreed to is a fair procurement process," Elias said. "That's what we agreed to and that's what we expect."
The county put out a call for qualifications, and its staff ranked the firms on experience and financial strength, among other criteria. GCS submitted its qualifications as a joint venture with a large Spanish engineering firm called Abeinsa but still earned fewer than half the points of Covanta and Wheelabrator.
"We're trying to protect that asset as best we can," purchasing director Joe Lauro told the board. "You have to set the bar at a certain level."
Six of seven commissioners agreed with a staff recommendation to begin negotiations with the top two firms. Commissioner Norm Roche abstained, saying he wanted to get proposals from all four firms.
"I have a hard time recognizing why our current provider is punished for not having enough experience when their experience is our operation," Roche said.
Interim county administrator Mark Woodard warned that deviating from the advertised bid process would likely spark a protest from Covanta and Wheelabrator.
Those firms, Woodard said, "have great experience and depth of resources, both technically and financially."