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Climbing equipment and materials prices may drive the bill up another $13-million.

Hillsborough County commissioners characterized it as a no-brainer when they unanimously approved one of their most costly no-bid construction projects ever three years ago.

But the "maximum" price of expanding the county's waste-to-energy plant keeps going up.

Commissioners will decide today whether to shift as much as $13.6-million toward the eastern Hillsborough County project. A favorable vote will increase its expected cost to $139.7-million, up more than 35 percent from an original estimate of about $102-million in June 2004.

Those involved with the project say it should still cost less than if commissioners had sought competitive bids for the work or locked in a guaranteed price. But at least one commissioner is skeptical.

"The bottom line is, we don't know that because we didn't go out (for bids)," said Commissioner Brian Blair.

Residential customers won't have to pay for the increase through rate hikes. The money will come from reserves and by delaying part of another project.

Only two commissioners remain from the board that initially approved the no-bid approach, Jim Norman and current Chairman Ken Hagan. Neither returned phone calls seeking comment.

County officials and their consultants say the lack of competing bids has nothing to do with the price run-up. They blame a perfect storm of rising skilled labor and construction materials costs that have hit power plant construction hard.

That prices for this project have gone up only as much as they have is good news, said said Dan Strobridge, a vice president with the county's independent consulting engineer, Camp Dresser & McKee..

Beth Leytham, a spokeswoman for Covanta Hillsborough Inc., which is building the expansion, echoed his assessment.

"What happened here is truly unprecedented in the energy construction industry," said Barry Boldissar, director of the county's Solid Waste Management Department. "Prices have gone through the roof, way beyond what any prudent financial adviser would have estimated."