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County starting over on hospital

A disagreement over how the top-ranked consultant was picked sends the issue back to square one.

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published August 23, 2006

Hernando County scrapped its latest plans for the old Brooksville Regional Hospital after two firms objected to the way the county handled its choice of a consultant.

On Tuesday, the County Commission tossed out the top-ranked firm picked by a selection committee and decided to start over.

The abrupt change in course comes four months into the county's search for a consultant to determine if the hospital can be renovated into offices, and if there's a reasonable cost for those renovations.

The decision adds further delays to the long-running debate on what to do with the vacant hospital, which is costing the county $50,000 a month to maintain.

At the heart of the debate is a disagreement over how the selection committee ranked its top choice. On Aug. 11, the committee viewed three presentations and made its choice: Strollo Architects of Orlando.

But the two losing firms sent letters objecting to Strollo's win, saying the firm went beyond what the county said it was asking for.

The county wanted a firm to tell it if the vacant hospital could be turned into a new government center, if the current Government Center on N Main Street could be turned into a court complex, and whether the cost was reasonable.

Strollo came back with a proposal that also included the possibility of expanding the existing Government Center, something the county did not ask for.

The other two finalists were DLR Group of Orlando, which ranked second, and third-ranked CRA Architects of Tallahassee, which prepared the county's preliminary study of the hospital.

Commissioner Nancy Robinson said she worried that Strollo had its mind made up that expanding the N Main Street complex was the best way to go. She worried that it could give the appearance of a bias.

"I would not be comfortable to go with this gentleman because he's essentially made up his mind," Robinson said.

Commission Chairwoman Diane Rowden disagreed. She served on the selection committee, and Strollo was her top choice.

"I needed to know that we're really going to be looking at every option. I felt like Strollo was being very realistic with us," Rowden said after the meeting.

Rowden said the county had an obligation to consider every possibility. She worried that the renovation could turn into a "black hole," with costs constantly creeping upward.

The County Commission voted 5-0 Tuesday to look for new proposals, a process that could delay any decision for several months. To cut down on delays, Jim Gantt, the county's purchasing director, suggested combining the first two phases of the decision process. Phase one was assessing the physical and economic feasibility. Phase two included consideration of possible designs, with more specific cost estimates.

Tuesday's move ensures a long-running debate will continue: how to bring relief for tight quarters and an expanding court system, and what to do with the old hospital.

The commission has so far been unable to make a final decision. Last year, Health Management Associates, a Naples company that operates both Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals, abandoned the hospital for a new location on Cortez Boulevard and Lykes Dublin Road.

Once the hospital moved into its new 183,000-square-foot facility last year, the county took over the three vacant buildings and 11 acres. The county also took over maintenance and utility bills. The climate control must be left on to prevent damage from humidity and heat.

Altogether, the old facility on Ponce de Leon Boulevard totals 117,000 square feet. Its oldest building was built in 1961, the most recent in 1981. In early 2005, the county received a preliminary study that estimated the cost of a complete overhaul at $18.5-million, including a new roof, adding updated wiring for modern communications and hurricane proofing.

However, costs have increased by approximately 1.5 percent a month since that report was received, putting the cost of a full renovation at least $22-million, the consultant told the commission in April.

It was at that April meeting that the commission decided to hire a consultant to take a closer look because of concerns that the hospital might harbor expensive structural problems, or dangerous substances like asbestos or toxic mold.

The 2005 report estimated that the facility was worth approximately $165-million, while the cost of building a new government center would run to more than $200-million after land costs, utility connections, site work and construction.

County Administrator Gary Kuhl said after the meeting that the commission decision could be a good thing. Combining the first two phases gives the consultants more flexibility and could speed up the process. It could also be cheaper to get one firm to do both phases at once. For example, if a structural problem is found in older sections of the building, the consultant can show design proposals and cost estimates for working around the issue.

"This may in fact help us in terms of cost savings and maybe we get to an answer a little sooner going this route," Kuhl said.

He also said that Rowden's concerns can still be addressed. If any disastrous problems are found, the commission still has room to reconsider its options.

[Last modified August 23, 2006, 07:01:12]


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