Waterline dispute pits Tucson vs. Pima County

Pima says it's unfairly facing $811K overrun at courts complex
2013-03-18T00:00:00Z 2013-03-18T11:02:27Z Waterline dispute pits Tucson vs. Pima CountyDarren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 18, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Pima County claims bureaucratic miscues at Tucson Water more than doubled the costs for waterline improvements at its new county courthouse.

What was supposed to be about a $500,000 project to ensure proper water flow to the new building at North Stone and East Toole avenues has ballooned to nearly $1.3 million.

Now, the county is seeking $811,881 from the city to cover the excess costs.

Expenses soared, county officials said, after Tucson Water required replacement of 31 connectors to existing customers along the waterline and expensive concrete pours to cover the new waterline and connectors on streets that don't even require them.

Furthermore, other downtown developments weren't told to make similar improvements when they built recently, creating the appearance the city held the county to a separate standard.

But city officials said nobody was trying to "stick it to the county." Instead, they were only holding the county to the same standards as it would any other developer when it comes to water service improvements, said Sandy Elder, Tucson Water deputy director.

The county just had the misfortune to build at a site requiring extensive improvements and upgrades, which is the risk one assumes when building in an old part of downtown, Elder said.

City disorganization charged

Many of the problems, according to Reid Spaulding, county facilities management director, stemmed from a disconnect between Tucson Water plan reviewers, who sit in offices and look at two-dimensional schematics, and field inspectors, who have to deal with what's actually in the ground.

"A lot of this was not driven by what was in the field," Spaulding said. "And it sure does put the developer in an awkward position."

Spaulding said changes and "comments" forced the county's contractor to resubmit its plans several times. After the fourth submittal, the plans were finally given the green light.

Elder said city records are spotty when it comes to old pipes, and it's anyone's guess what will be found once the dirt is removed. He said it's common for its field inspectors to make adjustments.

While adjustments are expected, the frustrating part about this project, Spaulding said, was the fourth submittal ended up being almost identical to the first, which translated into delays and a significant amount of money being wasted on superfluous design changes.

In addition to design changes, Spaulding charged the city would deceive the county into performing Tucson Water's routine maintenance at times.

One instance involved a leaking valve at Stone and Toole avenues. Spaulding accused the city of manipulating the county into fixing the valve by saying the connection had to be redesigned, even though it really wasn't the county's responsibility.

Spaulding said the county was basically "fixing someone else's problems."

Elder said the county was misrepresenting the matter.

But the biggest cost was requiring the county to lay concrete over the waterline and connectors in unnecessary places such as Toole Avenue when less expensive alternatives would have sufficed.

"To make us cover the waterlines on Toole in concrete, when there is no concrete in Toole at all, really seemed to not make much sense," Spaulding said.

Other projects

As suspicions mounted, the county decided to see if other developers had the same impediments.

So the county contacted four developers of recent downtown projects - The Cadence, the new Unisource Building, One East Broadway and the District on 5th - and asked them what Tucson Water required of them.

Spaulding said none of the developers had to make as many adjustments, connection changes or concrete covers as the county had. In fact, he said, most experienced only a nominal expense when it came to getting the proper water hookups.

He didn't know why there would be such a huge variance between projects.

But Elder said the difference is due to what already existed underground at those locations versus the courthouse site, and what each building needed for water. He said the developments Spaulding cites probably had pipes and fittings that could accommodate both user demand and fire requirements.

The courthouse building wasn't so lucky.

"Fire flow was very large, and that's what drove the need for replacing pipes," Elder said. "We have a methodology to determine the impact of (a building's) water service," he said. "There are standards. They are all published online. ... And all our inspectors are informed by and follow those standards," Elder said, insisting the city wasn't overbilling the county, and it's a fundamental practice that the developer pays for everything.

Spokesman Mike Graham said City Manager Richard Miranda has been in direct contact with County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, and both have decided to convene a team from the city and county to find a resolution.

Huckelberry said he's hopeful an acceptable agreement can be reached with the city.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @DarrenDaRonco.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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