Settlement possible in years-long City of Sarasota litigation over Lift Station 87

City attorney tells the City Commission a mediation conference is planned for Sept. 7

Project materials for Lift Station 87 site were visible in Luke Wood Park in April 2014. File photo
Project materials for Lift Station 87 site were visible in Luke Wood Park in April 2014. File photo

As the City of Sarasota edges toward the start of arguably the most delicate phase of the Lift Station 87 project, it also is preparing for mediation with the firm that walked off the job years ago.

During the July 18 City Commission meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier reported that at 8 a.m. on Sept. 7 in Tampa, that mediation with attorneys for AECOM and the original construction firm, Westra, will be conducted. The city and AECOM have been entangled in litigation since early 2013.

Fournier explained that he anticipated needing to schedule a “shade” meeting with the commissioners in a “reasonably short time after the mediation concludes,” to discuss strategies and a potential settlement.

After the Sept. 7 session, he added, he would work with staff on setting up that private session, which is allowed under the state’s open government laws.

During a telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader on July 21, Fournier said the total of all expenses the city has incurred so far with the litigation is “in excess of $3.5 million.” The attorney representing the city, Alan E. Tannenbaum of Scro & Hanewich in Sarasota, has had to hire a number of expert witnesses, Fournier explained; that has elevated the cost.

In the beginning …

The city’s complaint against AECOM dates to Feb. 25, 2013, but the problems go back even further.

The complaint points out that on June 10, 2008, the city entered into an agreement with Boyle Engineering Services to handle the design, permitting and pre-construction services for the new Lift Station 87 in Luke Wood Park. That work included the installation of new gravity sewers between Lift Station 7 and Lift Station 87; installing a new force main to connect with existing mains at Hudson and Osprey avenues; abandoning Lift Station 7; and decommissioning the existing Lift Station 71 in Luke Wood Park.

An aerial view shows the project area, including Luke Wood Park. Image from Google Maps
An aerial view shows the project area, including Luke Wood Park. Image from Google Maps

As explained in the Frequently Asked Questions on the city’s Lift Station 87 project webpage, “Lift Station 7, which handles approximately one-third of the City’s wastewater flow, is near the end of its useful life and has had a history of failures. Once completed, the [Lift Station 87] project will improve wastewater service and reliability for City of Sarasota customers and protect the environment.”

On Sept. 14, 2009, with the city’s permission, the complaint continues, AECOM USA assumed the Boyle contract. During the second half of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, the complaint continues, Boyle/AECOM, through the firm’s representative Craig J. Pajer, prepared various drafts of a Basis of Design Report for the project. The final version of that report — issued April 7, 2009 — “determined that the project, among other elements, would incorporate a gravity system bringing vitrified clay pipe … under Hudson Bayou through the use of deep micro-tunneling,” the complaint adds. Although city personnel provided comments on the report, the complaint says, Boyle/AECOM and Pajer “knew the City had no experience with micro-tunneling, let alone micro-tunneling with the use of [vitrified clay pipe].” As a result, the complaint argues, city staff relied upon the firm and Pajer to determine the feasibility of that part of the project.

The complaint says that micro-tunneling operations require customized specifications, including consideration of “the geotechnical conditions anticipated to be faced at the particular job site,” and that those conditions in Southwest Florida “can vary considerably within the course of even a few miles …” The type of pipe to be used is another important consideration, the complaint argues.

Boyle/AECOM should have ordered a thorough geotechnical analysis “typical for micro-tunneling operations,” the complaint says, but it did not do so. Even if Boyle/AECOM, Pajer and a third defendant — Douglas H. Eckmann — “had been competent to draft a customized micro-tunneling specification, which they were not,” the complaint contends, “their failure to order adequate geotechnical analysis rendered them unable to draft [such a specification for the project].”

In its complaint, the city alleged breach of contract, professional negligence against the firm and professional negligence against Pajer and Eckmann.

McKim & Creed provided this slide about the geotechnical work during the June 8 2015 City Commission meeting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
McKim & Creed provided this slide about the geotechnical work during the June 8, 2015 City Commission meeting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In its answer to the city’s complaint, AECOM argued that it never intended to use micro-tunneling and vitrified clay pipe. Instead, its answer said, the city’s project manager, Dale Haas, directed the firm to “prepare final design documents” with those specifications. It added that Pajer and Eckmann “informed the City they had no personal experience in that design and that they recommended the use of [a synthetic pipe], which they had investigated as being more reliable than [the vitrified clay pipe].”

AECOM further claimed that Haas denied Pajer’s request to pursue additional geotechnical studies after city staff called for micro-tunneling. Haas told Pajer “that the City would not pay for further studies and that [AECOM and its team] could rely on the existing surveys of the Hudson Bayou and 7-year-old borings the City provided.”

Additionally, AECOM argued that it paid to have another survey done, which showed the city’s survey was inadequate. As a result, the answer continued, AECOM recommended a contract change to allow it to revise its plan for the project. The firm “actually submitted shop drawings for this design change,” the complaint pointed out, “but the City never signed the change order … and, instead, wrongfully terminated AECOM for default.”

Westra Construction Corp. filed its complaint against the city on May 19, 2014, arguing that the city repeatedly had denied its requests for public documents related to the city’s termination of AECOM. On Aug. 6, 2014, it filed a Notice of Voluntary Dismissal without Prejudice in its case. Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Kimberly Carlton Bonner granted that on Oct. 16, 2014. The action followed the consolidation of the two lawsuits.

In a motion filed on Jan. 27, 2015, the city pointed to “Common questions of fact” in the cases. The motion also pointed out, “Consolidation of the matters would promote judicial economy and avoid the potential of inconsistent verdicts.”

On Feb. 19, 2015, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Rochelle Curry issued an order the granting the request, Sarasota County Clerk of Court records show.

The new team

A McKim & Creed graphic shown to the City Commission on June 8, 2015 shows the phases of the project. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A McKim & Creed graphic shown to the City Commission on June 8, 2015 shows the phases of the project. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On Jan. 21, 2014 — almost exactly two years after the city filed its lawsuit — the vice president of another firm stood before the City Commission to discuss Lift Station 87. Robert Garland of McKim & Creed, which the city retained in August 2013, explained how the micro-tunneling under Hudson Bayou should be undertaken. If AECOM had proceeded with its plan, Garland said, its employees would have drilled into the northern support slab of the Osprey Avenue bridge over Hudson Bayou.

“We’re very lucky we didn’t have a catastrophe with our utility department,” said then-Mayor Shannon Snyder. “This is bad no matter how you cut it.” He told Garland, “The fact that we found out before we had a bigger tragedy, I think you for that.”

As a result of the analysis his firm had undertaken, Garland told the City Commission, he recommended a major change to the design of the project: running the pipeline at least 8 feet further below ground. That also meant the pumping station on the north side of the bayou would have to be lower than originally projected.

Back to the future

Project details are provided on the City of Sarasota's webpage dedicated to Lift Station 87. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
Lift Station 87 project details are provided on a City of Sarasota webpage. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On Aug. 1, the city will close the Osprey Avenue bridge so the micro-tunneling can begin.

The city’s new project manager for Lift Station 87 is Tony Centurione, the city says on its webpage dedicated to the work. He will operate out of an office at 824 S. Osprey Ave. “for the duration of the project,” the webpage notes.

The new lift station, which will be built aboveground, has been designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, the webpage adds. Among the project features will be installation of reclaimed water mains “to provide the area with an environmentally friendly source of irrigation water,” replacement of aging water mains to improve water pressure, installation of new sewer mains, full resurfacing of roadways “curb to curb” and landscaping of the Lift Station 7 site following that facility’s decommissioning.

The budget for the project is $32 million, the webpage says. The Sarasota News Leader reported in January 2014 that the original contract was for $12.4 million.

The next meeting of the project team regarding the Lift Station 87 undertaking will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 26, in the SRQ Media Studio in the City Hall Annex at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota.

“The project is tentatively scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020,” the notice concludes on the webpage — close to eight years after the city filed suit against AECOM.