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Jury rules in county's favor in 4-year battle over sewer plant

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Dick Radacky knew something was wrong four years ago when the sewer plant owned by the county and GlenLakes started to break down a month after it was built.

"In engineering terms, we had four major catastrophes," said Radacky, director of Hernando County's utilities department.

"That's when we started to look at it more carefully."

The project engineer discovered the company contracted by the county and GlenLakes to build the plant, International Fabco, had used materials inferior to those listed in its contract.

When International Fabco refused to replace the broken parts, called aerators, the county withheld about $100,000 from the contractor's fee, Radacky said.

International Fabco sued the county for the money. The county sued back for damages to the sewer plant.

Thus began a battle between the county and International Fabco, which ended Friday evening when a jury decided that the company breached its contract with the county.

Friday's verdict struck a second blow to International Fabco, which last month lost its claim to the $100,000 withheld by the county. Circuit Judge Jack Springstead dismissed the company's lawsuit against the county when he ruled it was not licensed to build a wastewater treatment plant and therefore its contract with the county could not be enforced.

International Fabco's attorney, Dennis Fountain, said the judge dismissed his client's claim despite a letter from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation stating the company was licensed to build a plant.

"Once the judge did that we were in a position to defend only," Fountain said.

The jury decided that the county had suffered about $77,000 in damages. Because the county already had withheld money from Fabco, it owed the company about $29,000.

"I feel like the (jury's) ultimate decision was that (the county) had been damaged, but the county had improperly withheld some money," Fountain said.

Because Springstead ruled that the company's contract was unenforceable, the county does not have to pay International Fabco the $29,000, Radacky said.

But the county is entitled to collect legal fees from International Fabco, which County Attorney Bruce Snow said could reach $100,000.

Hernando County commissioners had approved the concept of joint wastewater plants with private companies prior to 1985, Radacky said.

In such a venture, the private entity, a developer, shares the cost of constructing the plant in exchange for 50-percent ownership. For some developers, a joint venture with the county can be cheaper than paying the hook-up fee for wastewater treatment for all the houses in the development, Radacky said.

GlenLakes and the county agreed to build a plant in 1989, but didn't work out a contract until 1992. The plant opened in fall 1993, and by spring 1994 problems with the plant were evident, Radacky said.

The chief problems were with the aerators, which look like giant round hairbrushes and stir oxygen into the raw sewage during the second phase of wastewater treatment.

International Fabco had used aerators from a different manufacturer than the one specified in the contract, Radacky said. Though project engineer Steven Dutch had approved the shop drawings for the substitute aerators, Dutch said he discovered that the drawings did not match the aerators installed at the plant.

Because the spikes on the aerators were neither reinforced nor attached to the shaft properly, they were breaking and in danger of bending, which affects the oxygen in the sewer, Radacky said.

Too little oxygen, and sulfur-producing bacteria thrive in the sewage, creating a rotten-egg smell for nearby residents. Too much oxygen, and the solid waste in the wastewater won't bulk and separate properly.

"The aerators are basically the heart of the system," Radacky said. If something goes wrong there, he said, especially if not enough oxygen gets into the sewage and sulfur gas is produced "the smell would have been horrible."