Rock News Wire
Following up a favorable community opinion survey with a stunning display of power politics, the SLO County Board of Supervisors on April 7 voted 4 to 1 to drop the STEP collection system from final consideration as an alternative technology to gravity collection for the Los Osos Wastewater Project.
The vote came as STEP was about to have its real costs compared to the County’s gravity system to see which one was cheaper and by how much. It was a sudden and alarming turn of events for alternative technology advocates who believed the County had promised to compare costs, system to system, to determine the “best value” solution for Los Osos.
The County’s monthly Los Osos project update meeting drew about 70 speakers queued for hours of public comment. Most speakers requested that STEP costs be compared “apples to apples” with gravity costs through the design/build stage, which had been repeated as the stated goal by the County up to this point. That’s why the power move by the County was such a surprise.
If the County was using the cover of “shock and awe” to break from the process and enforce their brand of governance, the “awe” part was how clearly obvious it was by the groans of disbelief through the chamber audience that the board’s decision had already been made before the board’s vote was taken.
County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren told the board that there was no compelling reason to move forward with STEP. “We do not support the continued expenditure of fiscal and project efforts on this alternative…
“We do recognize that STEP as a technology is an alternative that is appropriate in situations, in some cases that share some characteristics with Los Osos. But the research, evaluations and opportunities with STEP in Los Osos do not in our opinion outweigh its uncertainties and risks,” Ogren concluded.
Supervisor Gibson agreed, expressing cursory disappointment at the turnabout. “I had hoped that STEP could be carried further through the design/build process than it had been, but in both my heart and my head I concluded that staff is right in bringing the recommendation… that further work on STEP should be tabled… For a number of reasons, I think it is simply not a technology that’s going to fit the needs of this particular project.”
Yet, Gibson also admitted, “a benefit [of exploring STEP would be] a more definitive cost comparison. If we move STEP forward there would be a clear benefit of a more definitive cost comparison. We might see a less expensive project. That is a potential benefit of moving STEP further down the process.
“But at this point it’s uncertain,” he said, “and we have a definite cost to open the process for further competition to one competitor.”
Supervisor Frank Mecham asked Project Engineer John Waddell, “Do we know what the costs would be to delay this [process] for a comparison?”
Responded Waddell: “There would be additional costs for developing the RFPs (to include STEP/STEG system in the design/build procurement) of $150,000 to $200,000. Then we would also have significant delays in the project process and miss out on the opportunity for stimulus funding. Beyond that the quantification of what the actual costs of several months of delays are… The only hard costs we know right now are to develop the RFP documents would be approximately $200,000.”
Meacham asked staff: “If [contractor W.M. Lyles] suggested a STEP system, couldn’t they actually, somebody suggested, put together something to propose with the same time frame that we are looking for by September? Could that not happen?”
Without providing a direct answer, Waddell reemphasized the difficulty in trying to quantify the cost of “the additional funds and schedule delays that would result, and then the risk of the missing the opportunity to pursue for stimulus funds for the project.”
As of the April 7, the County had already appropriated more than $7 million reimbursable dollars from the general fund on studies, including $1 million to a Washington lobbyist. The $200,000 costs to add STEP back in consideration seemed nominal compared to millions already spent, against the potential savings to “Prohibition Zone” homeowners bearing the main burden of sewer costs.
Said Dana Ripley of Ripley Pacific Company, author of the 2006 “Los Osos Plan Update” and a Lyle team consultant, during public comment about the possibility of a STEP plan meeting the County’s deadline for stimulus funding: “The report that we did in 2006 can be used as a facilities plan updated and be every bit as fast and responsive to the stimulus funding deadlines that your staff has given you.”
Gibson believes STEP already had been already fairly evaluated in the County process and didn’t merit further expenditures.
“If this were a race,” he said, “we had a qualifying heat. We had a competition through the response to the qualifications, and staff found that the one entity out of 10 that was proposing STEP did not come up to the quality of the three [gravity teams] that they had proposed for the short list.
”I realize that I’m probably never going to convince certain of the folks who show great concern for this process and come here often to talk about it that I’m not breaking the promise regarding competition of STEP/STEG in the design/build process.”
Gibson said that the promise to include STEP through design/build was misconstrued by the system’s proponents as carved in stone, impervious to changing circumstances.
“Some will claim that this is a biased process and some will continue to claim that we have broken a promise,” he said. “I heard a couple of very objective commentators here, people that I respect, make it very clear that the promise was never verbatim, a head-to-head comparison of bid. The promise was to allow STEP to compete with gravity through the design/build process.
“Now,” he explained, “many envisioned, and I will put myself among them, that competition meant getting to the point of a STEP proposal, or one or more STEP proposals and one or more gravity proposals, that we apply head to head. That was the idea when that strategy was formed many months ago, many months ago before a lot of things happened, before the economy took the turn it did, before the analysis had been completed as it had, before the possibility of significant government funding was put on the table for us.”
Despite Ripley’s clear statement to the contrary, the threat of STEP endangering stimulus dollars was the key reason Gibson and staff kept turning to, again and again.
Emboldened by the results of a questionably-worded, County-commissioned community survey, which indicated as many as 70% of respondents preferred gravity collection, the County apparently decided the timing was right to jettison the alternative option. The survey was one of several reasons given by Board Chairman Gibson and Public Works Director Ogren for abandoning STEP, the only alternative system left in the process, along with comparing STEP’s cost to gravity. Alternative system supporters’ had long claimed that gravity received a “free pass” throughout the County’s process and that MWH, a global builder deeply invested in the aborted Los Osos project, owned the inside track on the new project, despite its badly checkered track record in Los Osos and Florida.
Several speakers during public comment challenged the validity of questions that appeared, even to Supervisors
Hill and Patterson, written to generate a positive response for the County’s gravity preference, the most expensive system, bringing into larger question the validity of the survey itself and how it was designed and used strategically as the prime reason for pushing for the elimination of any alternative. The community survey was biased and should not have been utilized in decision making of this magnitude, with so much at stake.
“Some have asserted that I have lost integrity and manipulated the community and that the [community opinion] survey is flawed,” said Ogren. “I find it simply impossible to believe that I have the ability to hoodwink a community to such a great extent that would have been needed to obtain the survey results that we see…. I believe that the consensus we have on the (gravity) collection system is the strongest consensus that exists on a component of the LOWWP.
“Some have said that we have varied from the process or we need to follow through. Today is the process. We have evaluated. Coastal (Commission) has commented. WRAC [Water Resources Advisory Committee] has had its special session and acted.”
Supervisor Frank Mecham disagreed with the majority and registered the lone “no” vote: “I heard more than anything the comment of process and the comment of ‘give us some comparison costs,” he said. “I cannot in good conscience feel that we are doing that. I’m very sensitive to the issue of affordability, too… as we’ve heard time again. And when we went and pled the case to Washington we talked about a community that was not a high-end community…
“I’m concerned that we are not going to be affording them the opportunity to take a look at a couple of options that might in fact reduce the cost of this.”
The main reasons echoed in Gibson and Ogren’s duet for dropping STEP boiled down to often repeated catch phrases such as: “uncertainties and risks,” “overwhelming survey results,” “loss of stimulus funding,” “RFP costs of $200,000,” “unknown delay costs,” “differentiating local characteristics,” “general readiness” “differentiating local characteristics,” and the evergreens, “inappropriate” and “we need to move forward.”
For Gibson, delaying the unknown results of stimulus funding was more significant than the unknown of cost-comparing cheaper STP against more expensive gravity. When all so-called reasons were easily rebutted by Ripley in three minutes at the podium, and the results of a premature survey lacking any costs to justify its existence thrown away, all that remains was the $200,000 and “differentiating characteristics.”
Ogren cited a Virginia Tech study and chart on “differentiating characteristics” that help rule out STEP for Los Osos “The closest [STEP system in the country] that we could find that was of the size of Los Osos [Charlotte County, Florida] still had some distinguishing characteristics that were very much not like Los Osos.” The “differentiating circumstances” prevailed solely on the professional opinion and judgment of the Director of Public Works who, perhaps significantly, is not an engineer.
Curiously, the “characteristics of Los Osos” are neither defined nor identified as a selection criteria, based on the terms of the RFQ. The RFQ is used for the purpose of creating a short list of qualified design/build entities to respond to an RFP. An RFQ is not a tool to evaluate a team specific to the “characteristics of Los Osos.” It should be designed to select the teams that provide proven experience, the best approach to assuring all or “the most” goals and objectives are used, and provides the “best value” to the end-user.
That leaves the $200,000 “late fee” the County was charging STEP. Any delay caused by not issuing an RFP to STEP contractor W.M. Lyles Co. appeared to be the County’s fault, not the cheaper STEP system and not the homeowners in Los Osos’ “Prohibition Zone,” whose tax dollars are building the sewer.
STEP wouldn’t appear to be late if the County had been included it all along, from the beginnin, just as gravity was. Since the County has already spent more than $7 million of what will be Los Osos’ money on what now seems like window-dressing, including $1 million for just an unseen lobbyist reporting to the County, the $200,000 would have been community money well spent.
Instead, thousands of hanging-by-a-thread, cash-strapped PZ homeowners, facing a $300-$400 a month sewer bill to build a sewer they can’t afford, were robbed of choice and costs, just as vital cost comparisons were about to be made, at the moment before the very moment of truth.