This week's jury verdict absolving HDR Engineering of responsibility for damages to Tampa Bay Water's 15.5-billion gallon reservoir has sent proverbial shock waves through the area.
On April 12, the Tampa Bay Times reported the reaction of some TBW board members. One, Charlie Miranda of the Tampa City Council, called the verdict in favor of HDR a "tragedy for the entire area." The paper quoted another, Sandra Murman, a Hillsborough County commissioner, as saying, "Jurors couldn't see that in the end that they're going to have to pay for a mistake that they don't see as a mistake."
According to the article, Tampa Bay Water estimates that a typical residential customer may see their monthly water bill rise by between 80 cents and $1.20 as a result of having to help pay for the $162-million renovation and expansion that the utility is undertaking with Kiewit Infrastructure Group.
Tampa Bay Water says its legal fees for the lawsuit have tallied $10.6 million to date. Also, as a consequence of HDR's prevailing in court—and its original contract with TBW regarding potential legal expenses—the utility will face a bill for the engineer's legal expenses as well. HDR would not provide that total to Engineering News-Record, but Tampa Bay Water estimates the firm's legal bill could run between $13 million and $18 million.
Last September, Tampa Bay Water announced its tentative approval of a $30-million mediator-initiated settlement offer with HDR. A month later, however, the TBW board unanimously rejected it, opting instead for trial.
That dramatic shift in votes and the ultimate rejection of the offer came just days after the Times editorialized on Oct. 17, 2011, that "Tampa Bay Water shouldn't settle for $30 million." After having called the $30 million sum "sizeable" but also "small" and "inadequate," the Times' summarized at the time: "(Tampa Bay Water's) staff is comfortable pursuing the lawsuit, and while resolving it would be nice, it cannot come at just any expense. Taxpayers had every reason to expect that the reservoir would not have these major problems in its first few years. Pursuing the claim will shed light on the design and on the utility's oversight process."
As Tampa Bay Water officials and legal counsel now ponder the merits of appealing the verdict of a federal jury, the Times is again weighing in, this time with an editorial entitled, "Leaking confidence and dollars." The editorial seems to imply sympathy for Tampa Bay Water by using some of the same language that TBW evoked in its press statement, specifically by stating the paper's frustration that ratepayers would have to "pay twice" for the reservoir.
Mostly, however, the Times' editorial argues in favor of continuing on with the planned $162-million renovation project—which TBW's general manager, Gerald Seeber, asserted as much at a post-verdict press conference, saying he expected the utility's board would "forge ahead" with the project. (The paper also gave a thumbs-up to the use of the design-build project delivery system this time around.)
States the Times:
"The board should not waver in its plan for a permanent fix. Skimming water from area rivers during the rainy season and storing it for later use reduces the need to pursue more expensive and environmentally damaging water supply sources, from groundwater to desalinated water.... The board should take the long view on the most efficient way to meet the region's water needs. That may take some explaining for the elected representatives on the utility board, but that's their public responsibility."
As the title "Leaking Confidence and Dollars" implies, the Times' overall tone this time around seems less supportive of continued legal action by the water authority. For example, the paper concludes: "The issue is not only whether to appeal but why the agency got caught in this position in the first place. This trial was about the competence of Tampa Bay Water as much as it was about HDR's. The public needs some assurance that the culture has changed—not only the contracts."
Will the Times' opinion on the matter have an impact on the utility's board members, as it appears to have had previously? That may be seen soon enough. Tampa Bay Water and its legal counsel are planning to discuss their legal options during a closed-door meeting scheduled for April 16.
Look for more summary and analysis of the Tampa Bay Water v. HDR Engineering trial in the April 23 issue of ENR.