City Commission splits 3-2 on contract for UCF researchers to work on improving city’s water quality

Mayor Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Brody oppose the $197,265 expense for differing reasons

Utilities Director Bill Riebe (left) and Mitt Tidwell address the City Commission on Feb. 5. News Leader photo

Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody maintained this week that he never has encountered a problem with the taste of the city’s drinking water.

Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said she felt that if staff does believe problems exist, the city needs to advertise bids to seek consultants to remedy the situation instead of pursuing a no-bid contract with a group of faculty members and students from the University of Central Florida (UCF).

Nonetheless, a majority of the board members on Feb. 5 voted to authorize the payment of $197,265 to a UCF research team that will continue almost a decade of work with city staff on issues related to complaints residents have aired about city water.

City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out that while the figure “does seem like a lot of money, our utility budgets are in the range of $50 million overall.”

Moreover, he explained, the Utilities Department will be using “enterprise funds” — revenue generated from the services it provides — to cover the expense.

Brody pulled the item from the commission’s Feb. 5 Consent Agenda No. 1 to ask for details about the proposed expense. He also told staff and his colleagues, “I have never heard anybody complain about the water in Sarasota.” It never came up during his 2017 campaign for the commission, he added. “I drink it all the time,” he said, noting that he finds no fault with the taste.

Bill Riebe, who recently took over as the city’s Utilities Department director, explained that two UCF professors have provided services to the city since 2009. Each professor has more than 20 years of expertise, Riebe added. Thanks to the commission’s 3-2 vote on Feb. 5, he said, they not only will work in earnest to determine the best approach to the water quality issues but they also will have the assistance of students who are candidates for master’s and doctoral degrees. The initiative will focus on the current processes to blend water from two sources.

A graphic in a U.S. Department of the Interior report in 1979 shows the Verna well field. Image from the U.S. Government

The backup agenda material for the Feb. 5 meeting explains, “The City of Sarasota drinking water treatment system consists of a combination of reverse osmosis, ion-exchange and traditional groundwater treatment processes.”

“There has been chronic taste and odor [problems with the city water],” Riebe pointed out. “As a new person to the community,” he added, he had found those issues “readily noticeable, so I think it’s something to be addressed.”

“As part of the world-class vision for the community,” he said, “I think it’s important to have really good potable drinking water. It really reflects well on the community.”

Differing tastes and views

Shortly after she was elected to the City Commission in 2015, Vice Mayor Liz Alpert said, she talked to Mitt Tidwell, then the city’s utilities director, “about this very issue: that the water is just terrible. … I think it’s really important that we get this taken care of.”

Already, Riebe told the board, the two UCF professors have “identified potential options” to deal with the hydrogen sulfide in the water.

When Mayor Freeland Eddie asked about the timeline for resolving the issues, Riebe replied, “Hopefully, within the next year or sooner.” The goal, he added, is to remedy the situation “as quickly as we can.”

The backup agenda material said the proposed length of the contract was two years.

An aerial map shows the general area of the Verna well field, north of Fruitville Road in the eastern part of the county. Image from Google maps

Then Freeland Eddie asked why staff sought what is known as a “single-source” contract with the UCF team instead of advertising for bids from consulting firms.

Riebe explained that the UCF professors already had taken samples of the water from the city’s Verna well field and identified a type of filter they think might be able to resolve the problems. The next phase of their research should determine the scope of work that would be included in an advertisement for bids to design improvements at the city’s 12th Street Utilities Department facilities, he noted.

(The well field is in the northeastern corner of the county. According to a 1979 U.S. Department of the Interior report, the “well field and contiguous area are underlain by unconsolidated deposits of sand, clay, and marl which are underlain by a very thick sequence of limestone that becomes dolomitic at depth.” Dolomite is composed of calcium magnesium carbonate.)

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch asked about a section of the backup agenda material that said the efforts could lead to a decrease in the city’s water treatment expenses.

Tidwell, who appeared before the commissioners with Riebe, pointed out that the city has a structure located offshore of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in downtown Sarasota that brings in seawater. That water then is blended with the water from the Verna well fields. Part of the study would evaluate whether the city should continue using that seawater, he added, or whether it should use reclaimed water.

“We have to pump that seawater to the 12th Street facility, but reclaimed water already is available at that site,” he said.

(City staff announced Tidwell’s retirement earlier this year; he has stayed on for a short time to assist Riebe with the transition.)

Brody asked whether grants could cover the work of a consultant on the project. “This seems like an odd way, to have UCF come in.”

City Commissioner Hagen Brody. File photo

Then Brody suggested that the commission determine whether residents agree that “our drinking water is terrible.”

Riebe explained that one of the UCF professors not only has a doctorate but also is a professional engineer. That person’s hourly rate is $148, Riebe noted. A private consultant probably would charge the city $250 to $300 per hour.

The other UCF faculty member also is an engineer, Riebe continued, and he charges only about $112 an hour. The master’s and doctoral degree candidates accompanying the professors, Riebe said, “basically work for peanut [butter] and jelly. They make about $10 an hour.”

The UCF team will analyze the city’s water operations, City Manager Barwin stressed, to determine what should work best. The city has 2,000 acres at Verna “with a lot of wells”; it has 10 wells in the city; it has the 300-acre Bobby Jones Golf Course with backup water availability; and it has a 20-mile water main that brings the water from the Verna well field site to the Utilities Department facility on 12th Street. One key question, Barwin said, is whether the city needs to continue to use the Verna property.

Then Freeland Eddie pointed out that the contract calls for the city to pay tuition for each of the graduate students, as well as their travel, vehicle, gas, hotel and food expenses. “There are a lot of incidentals that are built into this project that have limited direct relevance,” she told staff.

“Those are very similar to the costs we would incur if we retained a consulting engineer” and it brought in experts from out-of-town, Tidwell responded. The tuition expense — $29,744 — is relatively minor, he added.

After Brody reiterated that he could not support the project, Vice Mayor Alpert referenced Barwin’s remarks, adding, “A lot of decisions have to be made.” She told Brody, “I personally disagree with you that the water quality is good in the city. It is not, in my view. … Is that the most pressing issue in the city? It is not.”

“I would just like to say that the drinking water that we provide to our residents isn’t something that is taken lightly,” Barwin said. “Fiscal responsibility is very important,” he continued, but so are clean drinking water, sewage service, trash collection and public safety. “Those are really … our primary mission.”
“My concern is just the process,” Freeland Eddie replied. “My concern is that we are not getting the best utilization of our dollars.”

If the commissioners wanted staff to advertise a bid for consultants to handle the work, city staff would take that step, Barwin told her.

Finally, Alpert made the motion to approve the contract with UCF, and Commissioner Ahearn-Koch seconded it. Commissioner Willie Shaw joined them in voting for it.