By ROB SHAW | The Tampa Tribune
CLEARWATER – Last month, a divided Tampa Bay Water board of directors thought it had a $30 million lawsuit settlement over a cracked regional reservoir.
On Monday, the board did a dramatic about-face and decided to take the fight against HDR Engineering back to federal court.
Members voted unanimously, 9-0, to turn their backs on the $30 million offer and try their luck instead with a federal jury trial.
“It says we’re serious,” said board member Susan Latvala, who also is a Pinellas County commissioner. “We have been wronged, and we want a jury to decide the amount of that.
“This is such an egregious act by HDR that we must pursue it to the end, whatever that is. They knew what they were doing, and they allowed it to move forward.”
At issue is severe cracking at the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, which was built in southeastern Hillsborough County in 2005 to help relieve some of the area’s water supply issues.
A few hours after September’s 4-3 vote to accept the settlement, it was learned that the measure didn’t pass after all. That’s because two members were absent, and board rules require a majority of the board to approve such a settlement.
That meant the board had to take up the matter again at a meeting Monday morning. After being in closed session for 78 minutes, members rejected the settlement proposal without discussion.
Board Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand, also a Pasco County commissioner, was one of those who changed her vote.
“It sends a strong message that we are looking to protect the ratepayers,” she said after the meeting.
Hildebrand said she had not heard a “hue and cry” from the public about her original vote to settle the lawsuit.
However, “it was a lot of sleepless time, a lot of conflict,” she said.
Board member Mark Sharpe was absent last month when the vote was taken.
“We speak for the citizens,” he said. “That reservoir was built for the taxpayers and by the taxpayers. The taxpayers should not be held accountable for the cost of those repairs.”
“It’s important that this big company doesn’t get away doing what it did to a government entity,” Latvala said the day before the vote. “We thought of them as partners, and they screwed us over. Other governments in Florida need to know what they did.”
The cost of the repair has been estimated at $100 million, which is part of a $162 million plan to fix and expand the reservoir by 3 billion gallons.
Of the proposed $30 million settlement, about $8 million would have gone for legal fees and to pay expert witnesses used so far, it has been estimated. That would have left $22 million to offset the cost of the repair.
That would have left much of the burden of paying for reservoir repairs to the water ratepayers. That doesn’t sit well with Latvala and some others on the board.
“All through the course of this, the attorney has very strongly said that we have a great case here,” Latvala said. “He talked about the evidence we had, that they knew there was a problem with the reservoir and they didn’t stop the construction.”
HDR was working on a reservoir in Broward County and had similar cracking issues there, the water board member said. The company stopped construction there, unlike what it did in the Tampa Bay area, she said.
That’s why she was amazed to hear the $30 million settlement being touted a month ago.
“I was appalled,” said Latvala, who was participating in the meeting then by telephone from California. “I was sitting there with my mouth hanging open. It just made me crazy.”
Tampa Bay Water thinks it could be win up to $97 million at a trial, agency representatives say. It will reopen its federal lawsuit against HDR.
The agency filed a lawsuit in 2008 against HDR after cracks in the reservoir’s soil-cement lining were found. The cracking limited the facility’s use and was caused by a design flaw, Tampa Bay Water maintains.
The agency has settled with two other contractors involved in construction of the reservoir.