HERNANDO BEACH — Even as work was winding down this week on the Hernando Beach Channel dredge, the total cost of the project came into sharper focus.
The price tag: $15 million to date, and it could approach $16 million before the last bill is paid.
It was enough to stun one county commissioner and leave another vexed.
"This has been the biggest public works boondoggle since the Big Dig,'' Commissioner Jeff Stabins said, referring to an underground highway project in Boston that was plagued by billions of dollars in cost overruns, design problems and delays.
Stabins, who asked for the total cost figures this week, said he didn't fault the contractor, BCPeabody, but wasn't sure the county got its money's worth.
"I believe BCPeabody did a good job. But I'm not convinced that the economic benefit of the dredge is $16 million,'' he said.
Several years ago, officials talked about the dredge costing $9 million, with $6 million coming from a state grant and $3 million from the county. The state's share is still $6 million, but the county has had to find nearly $10 million to complete the work.
Commissioners last year agreed to spend $5 million out of a fund set aside to build a new judicial center. But additional money had to be taken from the county's transportation trust fund.
Stabins said he wants to convince his fellow commissioners to reconsider that and reimburse the trust fund by dipping deeper into the judicial fund.
"It ought to come out of a fund for unnecessary expansion,'' Stabins said.
On Friday, he asked county environmental services director Susan Goebel, who has been overseeing the dredge, to bring the commissioners a list of road projects that will not get done because of the $500,000 taken from the trust fund.
Stabins said he hopes those projects can be restored.
Commissioner Dave Russell said that the state Department of Transportation gave Hernando County almost $1 million in extra road dollars a few years back to help out with projects. He also noted that the county's own road monies had been used as part of Hernando's initial $3 million match for the dredge grant.
But, like Stabins, he acknowledged sticker shock at the project's total price tag.
"Look, no one is happy about the amount of money this project has cost us,'' Russell said. "Part of that is because the first contractor blew it.''
He noted that the county hopes to recover some of the $1.9 million it paid to the original contractor, Orion Dredging Services, through litigation.
The commission realized, Russell said, that "you get to a point in time when you are moving through this process that you're beyond the point of no return.''
Had the county pulled the plug at that point, it would have had to return the $6 million grant to the state.
"It's damned unfortunate,'' Russell said.
Still, since the work has wound down and the barges have disappeared, he said he has heard "nothing but praise'' for the newly cleared channel.
BCPeabody chief executive officer Robert Carpenter reported to the county that actual dredging work ended after dark Monday. Tuesday was the deadline for completion, or the company would have faced a $5,000-per-day penalty.
County officials won't know for certain that the work is finished until they receive results of a channel survey that was conducted this week. Those results are expected in the next two weeks, Goebel reported on Friday.
County staffers spent this week making a full assessment of the tasks that must still be wrapped up, including excavation of a high spot in the Tarpon Canal, restoring and reopening Caliente Street and restoring other roads, canals, culverts and features affected by the dredge.
The county will send a letter to BCPeabody detailing all of those tasks and expects a response that will include a schedule of when those actions will take place.
While the county awaits the survey results, BCPeabody will be using sonar in the channel to look for any debris that might have been left behind. An excavator and a barge will remain behind to assist with any heavy objects found.
Workers also removed the old channel markers and installed temporary markers where needed. New permanent markers will be installed after the contractor is done.
Other issues related to the dredge also remain unfinished.
There are still repairs that must be made to the docks and seawalls of several residents who live along the Hernando Beach waterfront. Some residents continue to wait for answers from the insurance companies of the contractor and dredging subcontractor.
And the county's litigation with the county's original dredging company, Orion, is still ongoing. It was recently combined with another legal action between Orion, its bonding company and a subcontractor, Harvey-Taddeo Inc.
One issue that was finally cleared up this week was a lingering question about whether any criminal activity occurred in the series of procurement moves on the project made by former County Administrator David Hamilton.
Hamilton bore the brunt of a scathing audit by the clerk of the court that detailed several breaches of purchasing protocol. The State Attorney's Office reviewed the record and found no violations last year, but the FBI took longer.
This week, FBI spokesman Dave Couvertier announced his agency's findings: "We completed our review of the matter, and no further action will be taken by our office."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.