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Pinellas settles lawsuit over shoddy construction at $81 million Public Safety Complex

Deputies used buckets to collect water pouring through windows during Hurricane Irma in 2017.
The Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center on Ulmerton Road is home to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, the Emergency Operations Center, Emergency Medical Services and the 911 dispatch center. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

After an 18-month legal battle, Pinellas County settled a lawsuit with contractors over poor construction in the Public Safety Complex — an $81 million fortress built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

Last week, the county withdrew the lawsuit and reached a $1.1 million settlement with contractors in mediation, court records show. Prior to the settlement, taxpayers already spent $507,000 on repairs, according to a statement from the county.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” said Commissioner Janet Long, who learned about the settlement from the Times. “We were so proud of that building. I’m glad we’re going to be able to make things right.”

County Commission Chair Pat Gerard said she was pleased with the settlement and looked forward to additional repairs, especially to faded paint across the building.

The complex on Ulmerton Road in Largo — once hailed as a signature project of the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax — became the center of a lawsuit over shoddy workmanship in 2018.

The command center’s first real test came during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

During the storm, Pinellas deputies collected water with buckets as rain poured through cracked walls. The center sheltered 200 first responders working at the Emergency Operations Center on the sprawling campus, which also houses the Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Medical Services and the 911 dispatch center.

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.

Officials never expected an onslaught of deficiencies so soon after the building opened in 2014.

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.

Lend Lease US agreed to pay $950,000, and Harvard Jolly $150,000 toward the settlement, the county said.

Motorists on Ulmerton Road couldn’t miss one of the biggest problems: Faded paint across the front of the main building. Nobody could pinpoint the cause.

Cracks developed throughout the exterior walls of the 218,403-square-foot main building, energy plant and vehicle maintenance facility. Water leaks deteriorated some exterior door and window frames and damaged interior fixtures.

Leaks also stopped electronic-locking devices from working on exterior doors. Rust covered some door and window frames. While paint peeled, drywall turned brown from water damage near windows.

At the time of the lawsuit filing, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called the complex an “embarrassment” and a “dump.”

In the coming weeks, the county will move forward with getting estimates for the exterior paint and coating and to replace exterior metal doors, the statement said.