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Commissioners to City Manager: Show us the math

Tana Weingartner

A multi-million dollar sewer project is unexpectedly on hold and that has a lot of Hamilton County and Metropolitan Sewer District officials scratching their heads.

Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black did something no one was expecting on Dec. 5. He sent a letter to companies who'd bid to do work on the Lick Run Valley Conveyance System project, terminating negotiations. That came as a major surprise to Ulliman Schutte Construction, which had already been awarded the job and signed contracts with the Metropolitan Sewer District. 

In an email to county commissioners on Dec. 8, President Matt Ulliman says his company had already begun meeting with project officials and drafting plans.

The City Manager tells the county he thinks the city can get a better deal if it re-bids the project.

"We need to further test the market and see if we can get better pricing," Black writes.

Commissioner Greg Hartmann isn't convinced. "Let's see the math," he says. "Let's see what basis led them to that decision."

Lick Run is part of the larger multi-billion dollar federally mandated project to overhaul the county's sewer system. The plan is to daylight an old stream that had been filled in and use it to redirect millions of gallons of storm water out of the county's combined sewer system.

In his letter to the county, the city manager says he thinks using a "Construction Manager at Risk" or CMAR approach is more expensive than other options.

"After looking at this project and the method of procurement, a decision has been made that the Construction Manager at Risk method is likely too expensive. We believe that the Utility can generate better economics with a non-CMAR approach. The fiscal magnitude of this project warrants that we take every step possible to ensure that we minimize costs. It is my view that the CMAR approach will not do that."

Commission president Chris Monzel echoes commissioner Hartmann's concerns.

"I ask for that same math. What are the numbers? What are the percentages of doing it design-build versus the CMAR process which, to me we vetted, as {Commissioner Hartmann} said, for months and had everyone in agreement and it was, in our opinion was the best way to reduce the cost of the project."

"...we look like children doing that. It's something that we need to work out."

Tensions are extremely strained between the city, county and sewer officials.

Earlier this year, the county won a court determination reaffirming what commissioners have said all along: while the city may run the utility, the county makes the rules.  

"The county has the authority to determine contracting policy," says Hartmann. "I think that there's no other way to view that court decision. Because of that, the city has no authority to tell us how these contracts are going to be bid."

The county administrator estimates re-bidding the process could set the whole project back at least five months. He also worries about lawsuits from the construction firms that had signed contracts with MSD for the work.

Hartmann says he's reluctant to go back to court yet again "because we look like children doing that. It's something that we need to work out."

For now, the county administrator says he's still exploring options.

Cincinnati Council members did not address the issue during their regular Wednesday meeting.