When Hurricane Irma slammed Florida last year, hundreds of first responders worked inside Pinellas County's three-year-old Public Safety Complex.
But deputies had to worry about their own safety. As rain and wind pummeled the region, deputies used buckets to collect water as it poured through cracked walls across the rear of the second floor of the $81 million fortress.
Fingers are now being pointed over who is responsible for the cracks in a complex that was built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. The problems have already cost taxpayers at least $200,000.
"I'm extremely concerned by this," Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times. "This was supposed to be done right. There are all kinds of problems with this building."
The complex — once hailed as a signature project of the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax — is at the center of a lawsuit over shoddy workmanship. The county is suing the building designer and three contractors who worked on the project.
Officials never expected an onslaught of deficiencies so soon after the building opened.
Cracks in walls have developed throughout the exterior walls of the 218,403-square-foot main building, energy plant and vehicle maintenance facility. Water leaks have deteriorated some exterior door and window frames and damaged interior fixtures.
The leaks also stopped electronic-locking devices from working on exterior doors. There is rust on some door and window frames. Paint is peeling and drywall is turning brown from water damage near 15 to 20 sets of windows.
Motorists on Ulmerton Road can see one of the biggest problems: Faded paint across the front of the main building. Nobody has been able to pinpoint the cause.
"It's an embarrassment," Gualtieri said. "The place looks like a dump."
The county accused St. Petersbug-based Harvard Jolly of negligently designing the building and failing to supervise the construction. Harvard Jolly blamed the problems on general contractor Lend Lease US Construction (formerly Bovis), PTAC Consulting Engineers and engineer William Lovell, Jr., according to a court filing.
The campus, conceived years ago following the 2004 hurricane season, opened in 2014. It houses the Sheriff's Office, the Emergency Operations Center, Emergency Medical Services and the 911 dispatch center. The command center's first real test came during Irma in September 2017.
The complex has a hardened parking garage with more than 600 spaces that can shelter the sheriff's fleet of ground vehicles, helicopters and boats. During major events, it can accommodate 700 workers from federal, state, county and city agencies.
Andrew W. Pupke, director of the Pinellas County Real Estate Management Department, said the county has spent the $200,000 to fix water leaks in the precast wall panels. The facility can withstand a storm, he said.
"The building is safe," he said. "The building integrity is not in question."
Pressed to explain that declaration since a Category 5 hurricane hasn't hit the building, Pupke said: "That's what it was built for."
Meanwhile, the cracks and faded paint cannot be fixed until officials and contractors determine what caused them to occur, Pupke said.
That could take time. The court battle could drag on for years.
Harvard Jolly, the building designer, blamed the problems on the other contractors who it didn't manage, according to a court filing.
Ward Friszolowski, Harvard Jolly president, told the Tampa Bay Times last month that the firm is working alongside Pinellas County to help understand and resolve the concerns. Seeking a satisfactory outcome is the highest priority, he said.
Adrian Lovell, CEO of Pensacola-based PTAC Consulting Engineers, said he agrees with Harvard Jolly that another contractor is to blame, adding: "It's not my fault." He declined further comment. Engineer William Lovell, Jr. could not be reached for comment.
Lend Lease US Construction, a Chicago architectural firm and engineering company, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The company was embroiled in a lawsuit over the 36-story Signature Place, a St. Petersburg condominium tower. One of the accusations: Cracked and improperly applied stucco in large areas of the exterior walls, which allowed water to leak into the interior. The parties reached a confidential settlement in 2017.
The county's lawsuit has caught the attention of St. Petersburg officials.
The city is using part of its share of Penny for Pinellas money to build a 167,519-square-foot police headquarters, which was designed to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. Harvard Jolly is the designer on that $86 million project, which is also using precast structures and wall panels.
Raul Quintana, the city's architect, said he is monitoring the lawsuit and has talked with Harvard Jolly. The city is confident that it won't have any issues because it is using a local contractor with deep community ties to manage construction.
"Any water intrusion is a major concern," he said. "A lot of people are watching over this."
Last fall, county officials asked voters to renew the Penny tax for a fourth decade, which should raise an estimated $2 billion between 2020 and 2030. They pointed to the successful completion of the Public Safety Complex as a major justification for why the tax should be renewed.
In recent years, critics have accused county and city officials of using Penny money for ribbon-cutting projects like recreation centers, parks and trails to bolster election campaigns.
Commissioner Dave Eggers, who wasn't on the County Commission when it approved the construction of the Public Safety Complex, said a "flagship project" shouldn't have so many problems.
"You certainly expect an above average delivery of the project," he said. "Certainly, I'm very disappointed."
Contact Mark Puente at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.