A contractor hired to dredge the Hernando Beach Channel contends it has been victimized by county government. Wrong. The victims here are the public. In good faith, the residents have waited patiently — too patiently, it appears — for local government, the state environmental agency and multiple parties in the private sector to work through one delay after another to dredge the channel.
Tuesday, yet again, the public will be treated to another round of finger-pointing in the dispute among the county, contractor Orion Dredging Services LLC and consultant Halcrow Group. If the parties hold true to past performance, Orion Dredging will blame the changing designs from Halcrow for escalating costs. Halcrow will answer that Orion is responsible for the muddy water discharge that resulted in state shut-down, rewritten permit application and a new design to reduce the amount of sediment returning to the canal.
Sitting somewhat bewildered and likely gagged by their attorney will be frustrated Hernando commissioners who owe no loyalty to either party. They can fire Orion and put the project out to bid once again; take another stab at renegotiating terms with the contractor, or seek remuneration from Halcrow. Whatever the final choice, the public should brace for litigation and the sad realization that an expedited conclusion to this drama will not be forthcoming.
Chances for successful renegotiation are remote. Orion, originally awarded a $5 million contract, wants $7.8 million more to finish the job because of the additional work required to appease state environmental regulators and to reduce the muddy discharge. Its response to a multimillion-dollar counter-offer from the county was to drop its request by $80,000 — a dismal definition of bargaining in good faith.
Public resolve is being tested. Residents have waited nearly 17 years for this dredge. It garnered state legislative support in the form of a $6 million grant, but enough delays to trigger the departure of the top two members of the county engineering staff. The ongoing dispute over price escalation and charges of breech of contract is just another sad chapter. In the meantime, boaters must continue to navigate a shallow, narrow channel. The rocky bottom poses danger to residential boats, prohibits larger craft from sailing the path and can leave commercial fishing vessels damaged and out of service.
Aggravation and frustration cannot overwhelm common sense. Tossing in the towel and forfeiting the state grant is imprudent, particularly in light of the hard work that went into obtaining the state permit. Commissioners, however, owe it to their constituents to be decisive. They must get the project back under way at reasonable cost or find new private sector partners willing to do just that.