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Consultant to analyze county utility purchase

Hernando County officials want to know more about Florida Water Services' infrastructure in Spring Hill before trying to buy the utility.

The system was built in the mid 1960s, county franchise manager Chuck Lewis said, and undiscovered problems in the treatment plants and delivery lines could cost untold millions.

"This is no slam on our own employees, including myself, but I think we need a high-powered engineering firm behind us," Lewis told commissioners Tuesday.

He and County Administrator Paul McIntosh asked for permission to hire a consulting firm to help analyze the company's true value within Hernando County, at a cost of about $50,000. Florida Water has proposed selling to the Florida Governmental Utility Authority, a four-county consortium that Hernando County is considering joining.

The administration also asked commissioners to invoke an emergency clause of the law governing the hiring of consultants, because the company requires an answer by Dec. 21 and it usually takes three months to hire a consultant.

At first, Commissioner Diane Rowden balked at the idea. She argued that the county has plenty of experts on its utilities staff, and did not need to spend the $50,000.

She stood alone.

Commissioner Betty Whitehouse agreed that the county has "very capable and competent staff," but added that the county's workers have a job to do. If several could be pulled away for such an intensive task, she said, "then we have too much staff."

Whitehouse supported hiring an outside firm to help establish the county's position. So, too, did the rest of the commission.

"This is a multimillion-dollar issue," Commissioner Nancy Robinson said. "I want to be careful and cautious as we go through the process."

Whitehouse also noted that having a consultant perform the due diligence could protect the county if it does buy the utility and later has problems that the consultant failed to mention.

Rowden then asked Lewis if other counties were hiring outside help. Lewis said he knew about similar decisions in Flagler, Citrus and Collier counties, and he figured others were doing the same.

"FGUA can do their thing," he said. "But in order for me to testify before you that this is a good deal . . . I'm not going to do it without outside consultants doing an audit."

The board unanimously authorized the emergency and the expenditure.

Making decisions

The Hernando County Commission took the following action Tuesday:

Approved a master plan for the future construction of additional government buildings, as needed. Commissioners made clear they were not authorizing any spending. Commissioner Diane Rowden opposed the plan.

Authorized Fire Chief Mike Nickerson to hire six firefighter-paramedics for a new east side ambulance, which will be at the Mondon Hill fire station. Nickerson sought permission to hire regardless of whether the county wins a grant to cover 75 percent of the cost.

Agreed to send another round of letters to federal legislators urging a quick start to the pending U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of the Green Swamp ecosystem. Residents who live near the Withlacoochee River have sought relief from flooding in the region.

Consultant to analyze county utility purchase

The commission wants the decades-old infrastructure in Spring Hill checked before buying Florida Water Services.

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