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Price is right on sewer proposals

The low bids on the Homosassa project give the county some breathing room in case of unexpected expenses.

Phase 1 of the proposed Homosassa central sewer project attracted stiff competition from a half-dozen construction companies, including several bids that fell below the engineer's estimate.

The apparent low bidder is Rowland Inc. of Pinellas Park, which made a $1.6-million proposal, records from Friday's bid opening show. The company's offer is $200,000 to $300,000 less than the next three bidders'.

"What this is telling us is this project is doable with the money given to us," Department of Development Services Director Gary Maidhof said Wednesday. "If all goes well, we would hopefully have these guys mobilized and breaking ground before the end of the year."

The county has received more than $2-million in state and federal grants to construct the initial phase, which will take the troubled Riverhaven treatment plant off line by running a main west on Halls River Road from U.S. 19. The facility has been one of the major pollution sources in the steady decline of the spring-fed Homosassa river.

The overall project, estimated to cost $15-million to $16-million, envisions the construction of additional lines along U.S. 19 and through old Homosassa. A line will be built from U.S. 19 to the county-owned Meadowcrest Treatment Plant to handle the area's sewage until a regional treatment facility is finished on land off County Road 480.

The county's Public Works Department currently is reviewing the bids for any hidden costs that could cloud the figures, Maidhof said. The bid committee will hear the department's suggestion Friday and pass on a recommendation for a final vote before the County Commission.

"So far, so good," commission Chairman Vicki Phillips said. "I haven't heard anything (negative) yet."

"We've got to have that sewer in there," said Jim Bitter, chairman of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance.

Maidhof said that unless problems arise with Rowland's credibility, such as the inability to obtain proper bonding, the project likely will go to the Pinellas County company.

The bids, opened at a time when contractors are scrambling to keep pace with a strong state economy, should also give the county some much welcome breathing room in case of unexpected cost overruns, he said.

The project developed amid a rare spirit of cooperation among the county and many state and federal agencies, including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

State Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, has advocated the project in the Legislature, and U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, helped push the county's $1-million grant application through bureaucratic roadblocks at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

But obstacles were overcome along the way. Citing cost estimates, county commissioners in the late 1980s rejected a similar project, and in 1997, voters shot down an ambitious $70-million-plus referendum that would have raised the local sales tax one penny to fund 24 water quality projects, including central sewers for Homosassa.

Most recently, local officials were shaken by Gov. Jeb Bush's decision to eliminate funding for wastewater treatment projects throughout the state, threatening financing for later phases of the Homosassa project. Phase 1 is using $750,000 approved by the Legislature in 1998.

The county has been trying to obtain as much grant money as possible to pay for the sewers in order to reduce the burden on taxpayers. Still, hookups will cost residents several thousand dollars.