BROOKSVILLE — The long-awaited dredge of the Hernando Beach Channel will wait a while longer.
At the urging of county officials, the state Department of Transportation on Thursday agreed to another six-month extension for the county to complete the dredge and spend the $6 million the state has pledged to the long-running project.
That will get the County Commission off the hot seat for having to make a difficult decision to move the project to the next level at today's 11 a.m. emergency meeting.
County Commissioner Dave Russell spoke with the FDOT district secretary on Thursday and laid out the county's problem. The only way to get the dredging done by June 30, 2011, was to go with an abbreviated emergency contractor selection process in which the top firm is under scrutiny for its selection of subcontractors with questionable backgrounds.
Now the county has until the end of 2011 to complete the job to widen, lengthen, straighten and deepen the channel.
Russell said the news gives the county some breathing room.
"Frankly, this wasn't going to go anywhere unless we got the extension,'' he said. "Now we have time to step back, get the best possible contractor.''
County officials on Tuesday had recommended that the board approve negotiations with BCPeabody, a Tampa-based firm affiliated with the proposed SunWest Harbourtowne project in Pasco County.
Concerned about the looming deadline, commissioners voted 4-1 to declare an emergency so that they could waive the normal requirement of seeking bids or proposals on large projects. But they were not willing to approve the contract immediately, and set today's emergency meeting to consider formal action.
At Tuesday's session, Commissioner Rose Rocco voiced strong concerns about one of the subcontractors BCPeabody planned to use, developer and former road builder Gary Grubbs.
Grubbs owed the county $500,000 at the time of his 2003 bankruptcy and the county spent $90,000 in legal fees recovering most of the money. He also owes nearly $100,000 in taxes to Pasco County.
Community reaction to the possibility of Grubbs working for the county built into an uproar with people questioning the close connections between Grubbs and BCPeabody's owner, Robert Carpenter, who is president of a company affiliated with Grubbs.
Questions also have been raised about connections with Brooksville attorney Tom Hogan, who is a business associate of Grubbs; Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai, whose attorney is Hogan; and Nicolai's controversial consultant Lisa Hammond, who is one of the lead negotiators on the dredge contract.
Additionally, the St. Petersburg Times found that another subcontractor picked for the job, Piedroba Marine Construction, was removed from a dredging job in Southern Shores, N.C., when the town council found main contractor Sampson Contracting Inc. in default.
Minutes from the town council's emergency meeting in February specify that PMC couldn't get the dredged water cleared of enough sediment, the same problem that ultimately lead Hernando County last month to fire its dredging contractor, Orion Dredging Services LLC.
"There's just too much smoke on this thing, too many questions,'' said Commissioner Jeff Stabins. "At least now the pressure is off because I would not have hired this firm tomorrow.''
Stabins was upset that County Administrator David Hamilton had tried to "ram this down our throats'' on Tuesday when clearly staff had not sufficiently vetted BCPeabody and its affiliated subcontractors.
He said that it is time for the commission to lay all the options back out on the table and one of those might be to ask the question, "should 100 percent of the taxpayers of Hernando County subsidize the 5 percent who use the channel?''
Commission Jim Adkins also said that the "no dredge" option should be considered. He said he also had many questions to ask, such as whether the county is going to collect enough money from Orion's bonding company to move forward.
The original dredge budget was $9 million, with $6 million of that coming from the state. BCPeabody had projected a total cost of $9.7 million if the firm needs to use chemicals to clear out the sediment.
One possible benefit of the delay is that the county might now be able to explore a cheaper dredging option, said Commission Chairman John Druzbick. Of the nearly one dozen companies county officials talked to about the job, most were more interested in doing a traditional dredge, like the one first proposed by the county and permitted by the state.
The newer and more expensive version of the dredge, the one which added construction of settling ponds and the use of chemical coagulants, was adopted later in an effort to solve the turbidity problem.
There might be time now to see yet another permit for the cheaper and simpler system, which contractors said they could make work, Druzbick said.
The extension also gets the commission off the hook for having to approve a multimillion-dollar contract without competitive bids. The emergency nature of the situation on Tuesday prompted former county purchasing director Jim Gantt to rail at the commission and Hamilton, threatening legal action if they didn't follow proper purchasing rules.
On Thursday, a much-calmer Gantt said that his message to the county was simple.
"The county should follow prudent rules and regulations and actually be bidding any project involving expending public funds,'' he said. "It should be a public bid. It takes longer. It's messier. And you don't always get the best price, but, it's the only way you will ever retain the public's confidence in its government.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.