Because of inflation and supply chain issues, Sarasota County’s expense for conversion of 3 sewage plants to Advanced Wastewater Treatment status — and expansion of capacity — to rise as high as $750 million

Commissioner Ziegler pushes for staff to work with state and federal elected officials to try to win grants for the projects

Because of supply chain issues and inflation, the anticipated expense of upgrading Sarasota County’s three sewage plants to advanced wastewater treatment status — and expanding their capacity by 50% — is rising from around $500 million to between $650 million and $750 million.

That was the news that Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, made public on Aug. 30 during a presentation to the County Commission.

Commissioner Nancy Detert characterized the updated figures “an unimaginable cost overrun,” but she pointed out that it is not the fault of county staff.

To help pay for the expense of the projects, the commissioners already had approved a 5% increase in utility rates through 2026, Mylett noted. However, because of the jump in the cost, he continued, staff would be back before the board in the future to request those increases remain in place through 2028.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out that he pushed for that 2026 sunset on the rate increases when the board members originally discussed them. Ziegler told Mylett that he believes staff needs to do a better job of communicating the importance of all three wastewater treatment facility projects to state legislators and members of Congress, to encourage them to support Florida and federal funding assistance for the undertakings.

“It’s our job to get them excited on this,” Ziegler stressed of the other government officials, noting that he recently had been talking to elected leaders who represent the county at the state and federal levels.

“I don’t really care whose fault it is,” Ziegler added, referring to the lack of county outreach to those representatives.

He encouraged staff members to have the same types of discussions with the elected officials that he had had. Staff also should create a one-page” infograph,” Ziegler pointed out, that could be used in those conversations.

“This is the single greatest thing we can do to eliminate nutrients going into our waterways,” he emphasized of the projects regarding the wastewater treatment facilities.

In 2019, Mylett showed the board members a slide with figures denoting the amount of nitrogen left in the wastewater after the treatment processes the county has been using. Nitrogen is the primary food of the red tide algae, Karenia brevis, researchers have discovered. Thus, reducing the amount of nitrogen that ends up in tributaries leading to Sarasota Bay — and ultimately in the bay itself — can reduce the potential for red tide events.

“All of our electeds also want to do what they can for water quality here,” Ziegler told Mylett. Further, lowering utility rates, Ziegler continued, is “very appealing to an elected official … But it has taken me to have those individual pitches with those elected officials. … That needs to be a major, major focus,” he added. “We can’t depend on lobbyists to tell the story.”

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger told Mylett, “I just want to make sure” county leaders make every effort to seek state and federal funds for the work on the three facilities. Water quality improvements, Cutsinger said, are “a hot button topic across the nation.”

Only one person had signed up to address the board during the related Aug. 30 public hearing, which involved the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF). Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who is a senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, based in Venice, pointed out that the Foundation has been a supporter of the Bee Ridge WRF upgrades “since the beginning.” He added, “I would suggest that this is an investment in the future.”

Thaxton also noted that Ziegler will be leaving the board in November, after a new District 2 commissioner has been elected. Thaxton encouraged Ziegler to join him “on this side of the dais” in continued support of the county’s water quality initiatives.

The Aug. 30 motions and other related updates

Mylett’s primary purpose in appearing at the podium on Aug. 30 was to seek formal approval of several steps necessary to the work on the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF), which the commissioners agreed to in 2019 in the face of a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit that several nonprofit organizations had filed against the county early that year, as well as a Consent Order imposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The latter was in response to routine spills from the reclaimed water pond on the Bee Ridge WRF site. (That facility is located at 5550 Lorraine Road in Sarasota.)

Formally, on a unanimous vote on a motion made by Commissioner Nancy Detert, the board members approved the issuance of $155 million in county utility system bonds, a budget amendment for the current fiscal year to increase the expense of the Bee Ridge WRF work by $107,455,047, and the second Guaranteed Maximum Price for that project, which is $249,455,810.23.

“Originally, Mylett pointed out, he and his staff estimated the entire Bee Ridge WRF initiative would be “in the neighborhood of $220 million.” However, he added, “We’ve seen significant price escalations,” especially in regard to electrical parts — mainly computer chips — and pipes. Those items have gone up 150%, he said. Thus, the new estimate for the entire Bee Ridge WRF project is approximately $280 million, he added.

That undertaking includes expanding the plant’s treatment capacity from 12 million gallons per day to 18 million gallons per day, to accommodate residential growth in the county, Mylett reminded the board members.

The design work underway for the second wastewater treatment facility — the Venice Gardens plant — will be finished in late 2023, Mylett also noted on Aug. 30.

The completion of both the Bee Ridge and Venice Gardens facilities will be necessary, he continued, prior to the upgrade and expansion of the Central County WRF, which is located on Palmer Ranch. That is because staff will have to shift the flow of sewage to the other plants while the Central County facility work is underway.

The Central County site “is kind of constrained,” Mylett reminded the board members.

He also showed the commissioners a short video depicting the initial pouring of concrete for the work at the Bee Ridge WRF, which took place about 3 a.m. on Aug. 26.

The basin shown in the video will have 700 tons of steel “just in the floor,” he noted. Altogether, the facility will have more than 1,700 tons of steel, Mylett said. “That’s equivalent to 17 locomotives.”

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