CLEARWATER — Pinellas County's new public safety complex is designed to make it easier to run the Sheriff's Office and respond to emergencies.
But planning the $81.4 million project has been anything but simple.
The County Commission rejected all the bids to design the complex in June over questions of favoritism for the winning bidder — and a firm improperly lobbying County Administrator Bob LaSala.
Then last month proposals to manage construction on the 40-acre Largo site were put on hold to give the commission time to debate whether to give local and regional firms preference for contracts. The top-ranked bidder was Bovis Lend Lease, a global contractor based in Australia.
And now, LaSala has ordered an audit of how the management bids were handled, adding to a panel's review of county contracting policies.
The delays have left Sheriff Jim Coats questioning whether the county will miss its chance to save on a high-priority project.
"Obviously, we strongly feel the need for the campus — the sooner the better," Coats said. "With the economy the way it is, it might be an ideal time to get the construction pricing down below where it might be in the future."
The new complex would put the county's 911, emergency medical services and sheriff's dispatches in one place, and centralize the sheriff's operations. The emergency operations center and medical examiner would be housed there, too.
The complex will reduce the county's reliance on rented space and replace aging buildings used by the sheriff.
The county plans to begin construction in 2011 and finish in 2014.
While LaSala and commissioners downplay the risk of delays, they also said moving up the project to save money is an option. Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue — which has dipped in the recession — will pay for the project.
The size of the complex makes it financially appealing to construction-related companies eager for business. And they've made that clear beyond the pages of bid documents.
In late May, executive vice president Ward Friszolowski of St. Petersburg's Harvard Jolly architecture firm approached LaSala at a government conference in St. Augustine. Friszolowski wanted to talk about the selection process, particularly the qualifications of ARC3, a St. Petersburg-based competitor, LaSala recalled.
ARC3 was the top-ranked firm for the $3 million design deal; the bigger Harvard Jolly was second.
But the commission wasn't set to name a winner until June, and Pinellas bans lobbying while bids haven't been decided. Violating it can result in a bidder's disqualification.
Friszolowski, a former mayor of St. Pete Beach, did not return calls and an e-mail seeking comment. LaSala said he did not respond to the architect's comments, but reported the conversation at the commission's June meeting without naming the firm.
Commissioners said their only conversations with bidders for either contract involved the "process," not specific bids.
Moments after LaSala disclosed the chat to the board, County Attorney Jim Bennett advised that the board should reject all bids and start over. The board did — after members said they have concerns about ARC3, too.
Commissioners' reasons dovetailed those that Friszolowski laid out for LaSala.
ARC3 created the conceptual plan for the complex, work that was lauded by sheriff's and county staffers. Originally that meant it could not bid on finishing the design. But last year, county officials changed the way the project would be designed and run, allowing ARC3 to bid.
ARC3 had some handy references: three county officials who had worked with the firm.
"I guess it's good that they had a good experience with them, but it's the arm's-length neutrality," Commissioner Karen Seel said.
Seel and Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield questioned the qualifications of ARC3, whose largest similar project was roughly a third of Pinellas' plan.
ARC3 principal Eddie Mastalerz and partner Steve Vinci said the project is larger than others they've done, but members of the firm have done similar building as singular projects. Like county staff, they say nothing in the process was wrong.
"We have an advantage but it's not an unfair advantage. It's no different than another architect who has experience with schools," Vinci said.
With the bids scrapped and the lobbying ban over, Vinci has begun lobbying commissioners, too.
His firm's attorney, Jim Dickson, questioned the decision to kill the bidding in a July 23 e-mail, saying "disappointed competitors had created an impression" among commissioners that rankings had been unfair even though they have been used for some time.
Dickson also questioned commissioners' description of only having "process" conversations with contractors. "I fear that in reality, such a distinction is form over substance," he wrote.
He's not the only lawyer involved.
A lawyer for the lead company that was in line to receive the $13 million construction management contract, Bovis Lend Lease, has filed a detailed public records request that seeks information on contacts between bidders and commissioners, and the proposed preference ordinance.
Meanwhile, the county has asked a panel of construction-related pros to help rework contracting policies, while attorneys and staff work on the preference law — and decisions on contracts gather dust.
"It's kind of domino game," county real estate director Paul Sacco said. "We're waiting to see how those pieces fall out."
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.