CLEARWATER — The company that runs Pinellas County’s waste-to-energy plant is seeking more than $200 million in damages after being denied a chance to bid on a long-term contract with revenues around $35 million a year.
A lawsuit filed in circuit court by GCS Energy Recovery of Pinellas maintains county officials ranked the company poorly without justifiable reason and misled county commissioners about the rules of the bid process.
GCS has operated the plant for 18 months, but it came in last among four companies looking to assume the lucrative contract after getting low marks from county staff in financial stability and experience.
Commissioners in May voted to negotiate with the top two firms, Covanta Projects and Wheelbrator Technologies.
The GCS lawsuit claims that decision was a breach of its existing contract with the county, which was amended last year to allow for a bidding process.
“As the existing operator of the facility for the last 18 months, we are not asking for anything more than what we had bargained for. We are seeking for our performance excellence and cost competitiveness to speak for itself in this critically important process,” GCS President Marc McMenamin said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, (Pinellas County) Staff has managed the procurement process in a misleading manner as to prevent the full measure of GCS’ strengths to be put before the Commissioners.”
The lawsuit claims county staffers were biased in their ratings of the company and used unclear criteria to disqualify it.
For example, to meet strict financial criteria required for running the plant, GCS noted plans to join forces with a large Spanish engineering company but got a score of zero from officials who said the arrangement wouldn’t count because it wasn’t already in place.
The complaint states this financial criterion never was defined and also points to a recent letter by the county’s budget manager that says all four companies have sufficient financial capacity to fulfill the contract.
A bigger sticking point is that the original request for qualification did not state that only the two top competitors would be allowed to bid on the contract, contrary to what staffers told commissioners in May when they voted to proceed, according to the complaint.
The Pinellas County Attorney’s office declined to comment on the complaint because it is pending litigation.
County officials have criticized GCS’ performance in the past, and an operational report for the 2013 fiscal year cited “poor maintenance and operating practices” at the plant, which is valued at $800 million.
GCS officials have said those issues were resolved and the plant is running better than ever now.
An average of 17,000 tons of trash a week end up at the plant, located on 110th Avenue just south of Ulmerton Road, where it is incinerated to produce steam that generates electricity. The county makes about $54 million a year selling that power to Duke Energy.