Three firms were prepared to make pitches to design and build a multi-million dollar alternate water supply system at Tuesday's Bay County Commission meeting, but none of them got the chance.
Just as the meeting got underway, Commissioner Mike Nelson had the item pulled from the agenda. "I don't have my arms around this thing yet," Nelson said. The District 1 commissioner said he needed more time to study the financial aspects of the deal.
The county wants to establish an emergency water source for use if the primary drinking water supply, Deer Point Lake, is contaminated by saltwater intrusion due to a storm surge. The plan is to build a pump station and pipeline to transfer water from Econfina Creek to the Water Treatment Plant.
In all, five companies responded to the county's Request for Qualifications to do the work, which is budgeted at $25 million in the Utility Services strategic plan. At their April 16 meeting, commissioners directed county staff to score the submittals and invite the top three firms to make formal presentations to the board.
Those firms and their corresponding scores were:
Nelson was joined by commissioners Guy Tunnell and George Gainer in voting to postpone the vote until June and inviting all five firms to make presentations. Commissioners Bill Dozier and Mike Thomas voted against changing the bidding process.
Tunnell echoed Nelson's concerns over finances. "We don't really have a good handle on what this is going to cost," Tunnell said.
But Thomas objected to the money argument. "If you want to hear everybody, I'm fine with that… but to talk about us not being prepared for this, I think is wrong," Thomas said. "You're telling the people of Bay County that we've jumped into this thing and we're not prepared to do it and I just don't think that's right."
Thomas said the county has collected about $2 million in utility fees during the past two years to help fund the project. In addition, the Northwest Florida Water Management District has pledged $5 million.
"Have we got a problem in the utility budget that I haven't heard about?" Thomas asked Bill Kinsaul, the county's Comptroller. "Depending on which funds those are coming out of, some of those funds are in very good shape," Kinsaul responded.
Dozier objected to altering previously established procedures for awarding contracts and said the county "pulled the rug out from under" the three firms expecting to make presentations. "I think it's an injustice to the firms… and to the whole process," Dozier said. "It's not good business… I don't like the message that we're sending by doing that."
Sources tell News 13 that James Finch of Phoenix Construction objected to his company not making the final cut and pressured county officials to reconsider. But Commissioner Tunnell said postponing the vote and allowing all five firms to make presentations was not an effort to show favoritism toward any of the bidders.
"I don't think that [Finch] has applied more pressure than anybody else would have who wanted a chance to be a part of the presentations," Tunnell said.
Finch was in the commission chamber for the discussion but left as soon as the vote was taken. Contacted by telephone, he told News 13 he had not previously discussed the project with any commissioners and attended Tuesday's meeting to voice his objection to Phoenix not being allowed to make a presentation.
"We're a local company and I wanted my people to have a chance for it," Finch said.