If at First You Don't Succeed, Get Hired by the City Again

Consultants Hazen and Sawyer oversaw one the biggest utility failures in Fort Lauderdale history. So why does the city keep hiring them?

The animosity had been steeping for a decade. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle finally let it loose recently when his colleagues on the City Commission opted to hire the engineering firm of Hazen and Sawyer to oversee the city's drinking water plant. At the mere mention of the firm, Naugle's face tenses and his lips purse. Hazen and Sawyer collected more than $3 million in fees to advise the city on a $24 million compost plant that has never operated more than two weeks in a row and has been shut down for eight years.

"It was universally accepted back then that [Hazen and Sawyer] were a disaster," Naugle asserts. "I guess everybody's willing to forgive, but when millions of dollars of taxpayers' money is going down the drain, I don't think we should look the other way. They were the consultant we hired to make sure everything worked, and nothing worked. C'mon folks."

Back in 1983 a new technology designed by PURAC, Inc. of Sweden was chosen for the city's new compost plant, promising to turn yard waste and sludge into compost. Sludge is the smelly solid byproduct left after treating sewage. The resulting compost, a dirtlike fertilizer, could then be sold to nurseries or added to soil in city parks and public places.

Utilities officials at the time believed the state was getting ready not only to outlaw the dumping of yard waste in landfills but to make its current method of sludge disposal illegal, too. The city had been trucking its sludge to Martin County and spreading it on farm fields. Recycling yard waste and sludge into compost would solve both problems.

Hazen and Sawyer was hired as the city's engineering consultant and therefore responsible for making sure that PURAC built what it said it would build -- an operable compost plant.

The plant opened in October 1988 and closed intermittently over the next two years to work out operational problems. South Florida yard waste means palm fronds, and it seems the sinewy leaves choked up the churning mechanism inside the composting bin. Another problem arose when the full impact of an open bin was discovered -- the smell of waste wafted over surrounding neighborhoods every day it operated.

Patrick Davis, vice president of Hazen and Sawyer, says his firm couldn't be expected to foresee problems with the plant's operations because the process being built had never before been tested. Besides, he says, Hazen and Sawyer was only responsible for making sure PURAC built what it said it was going to build, not whether it worked.

The plant was closed for good on August 9, 1990, a day before the Broward County Environmental Quality Control Board (now the Department of Natural Resource Protection) was to yank its operating license because of the offensive smell.

City engineers and Hazen and Sawyer's project manager said the problems could be fixed by using wood chips instead of palm fronds to mix with the sludge and building air scrubbers to clean any escaping air of odors. The city could have had a plant that worked for an additional $2 million over the nearly $24 million already spent to construct the thing. The improvements were never made because they proved more expensive than spreading the sludge on farmland, which the state never outlawed. The plant remains closed.

Fort Lauderdale's compost plant, however, wasn't the only project supervised by Hazen and Sawyer to encounter problems:

*A sewage treatment plant the firm oversaw in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the early 1990s was more than six months late in opening; two of the four machines that blow oxygen into waste to remove odors didn't blow; boilers designed to operate off methane gas created by the process wouldn't burn methane; and the $1 million computer system didn't work. The city blamed the contractor and withheld seven months' worth of payments. Hazen and Sawyer collected $780,000 for its work, according to press reports.

*Hazen and Sawyer was the consulting firm that oversaw the expansion of a wastewater plant in Port St. Lucie that was built and operated by General Development Utilities (GDU). When GDU went bankrupt, the City of Port St. Lucie took over the plant. Port St. Lucie City Manager Don Cooper says although the firm was paid, the work wasn't completed properly. The city asked Hazen and Sawyer to leave, and city engineers completed the expansion, Cooper says. Patrick Davis, vice president of Hazen and Sawyer, says he could find no record of this project.

"If you have a series of these [troubled projects], if the common thread is Hazen and Sawyer, you have to look at Hazen and Sawyer," Cooper says.

Two other compost plants designed by PURAC but using different consultants, work fine:

*Sarasota's environmental resources manager Doug Taylor says his city's plant designed by PURAC has been up and running since 1987. The city sells the resulting compost as a potting-soil additive. The consultant was Smith & Gillespie, a firm out of Jacksonville.

*In Cape May County, New Jersey, the PURAC-designed plant worked through some kinks of its own and has been open since 1985.

Naugle blames Hazen and Sawyer for not making sure Fort Lauderdale's plant worked. "Everybody [blamed Hazen and Sawyer] back then," he says. "I don't know what happened to their memory."

Meeting minutes from 1990 and 1991 reveal that commissioners -- mainly Naugle and Carlton Moore, the only two commissioners from that time still in office today -- were frustrated that the plant wasn't functional and angry about having to pour more tax dollars into making it work. At the time Moore wanted to sue Hazen and Sawyer because "their errors were costing the city money." He wanted to fire the firm a full seven months before the ties were finally severed in July 1991.

Moore's anger dissolved somewhere between 1990 and 1995, however, when he suggested giving the firm a plaque for its $5000 donation that paid for youth programs at two city parks. The firm also donated at least $2500 to the Broward League of Cities for its ceremony to induct new officers, being held this Saturday at Pier 66. Moore is being ushered in as the League's new president.

Moore says he doesn't remember being upset with Hazen and Sawyer, but he doesn't dispute his comments. He says he now supports the firm because the city's selection committee chose them.

"They were ranked number one, it's as simple as that," Moore says.
Commissioners and the members of the city's selection committee didn't discuss previous Hazen and Sawyer wastewater projects or even the city's failed compost plant, in any detail before voting 4-1 to make Hazen and Sawyer the city's latest general engineering consultant for water services. Naugle opposed them.

All four commissioners who voted for the firm say they were honoring the city's selection process -- a panel of two citizens and three city utility employees had spent hours reading proposals, listening to presentations, and discussing five firms before recommending Hazen and Sawyer to commissioners. In addition, the firm has 30 years of engineering experience in South Florida.

"They are a highly reputable, competent engineering firm that went through the competitive process and were ranked number one," Vice Mayor John Aurelius says. "I saw no substantiating documents to support anything the Mayor was claiming."

The contract with Hazen and Sawyer for water services awaits only legal review and final signatures. It requires the firm to oversee and advise the city in applying for permits and grants, in meeting federal guidelines under the Safe Drinking Water Act, in reviewing the annual budget, and in serving as an expert witness if necessary. For all that, the firm will be paid about $1 million over the next five years.

As the city's wastewater consultant from 1977 through 1991, the firm oversaw $100 million in construction projects and expansion of the city's sewage system, including the failed compost plant, Kisela says. The firm was paid more than $7 million for those services.

Davis denies his firm was responsible for any of the mishaps Naugle blames on it and says he was shocked to hear Naugle get so angry about the firm. The city took the risk in building an untested system, he says, because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offered generous grants toward construction of plants using new technology. If state environmental rules had outlawed the spreading of sludge on farmland, as the city thought would happen, Davis says the city would have found a way to make the plant work. But the spreading of sludge wasn't outlawed, and because that method was cheaper than running a compost plant, the city simply abandoned the project, Davis claims. "You could say that everyone involved -- our firm, PURAC, the contractor, the city, none of us could foresee the future," Davis adds.

Kisela, who worked with Hazen and Sawyer on the Port St. Lucie sewage plant, says he knew recommending the firm for the million-dollar water contract would cause some political tremors, "But I can't prostitute my principles and overrule my selection committee. Why are they going to select a consultant that's going to do a bad job? Just to stick our finger in Jim's eye and make him mad?"

No need. Jim's mad enough. All he has to do is look at the plant still standing east of State Road 7 and south of State Road 84.

"We should bronze it and use it as a monument to what happens when you spend millions of dollars on bad advice," he says. "We got burned before, and I fear we'll get burned again.

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