Politics & Government

Wichita water plant decision delayed until after election

Wichita’s new water plant has fallen behind schedule, delaying a City Council decision on whether to keep its contract with Wichita Water Partners until well after the November election.

Wichita Water Partners, a team lead by Burns & McDonnell and Alberici, was supposed to design 30% of the plant and come up with a final cost estimate by Oct. 4, according to its contract with the city.

The City Council was scheduled to approve that cost at the end of October and authorize Wichita Water Partners to start building the plant.

Instead, that decision will likely be delayed until December or later. Last Thursday, one day before the work was due, City Manager Robert Layton approved a 75-day extension at Wichita Water Partners’ request, moving the due date to Dec. 18.

“This gives the Design-Builder additional time to refine their guaranteed maximum price,” Director of Public Works and Utilities Alan King told The Eagle. He said he could not answer additional questions on Tuesday.

The timing on the project is important because the city is supposed to complete a federal loan application by Oct. 30. The loan will cover no more than 49% of the project’s costs.

The original contract noted that “time is of the essence” and the city “will suffer financial and other losses if the work is not completed” in a timely manner. The original contract stated that if Wichita Water Partners missed the Oct. 4 deadline, it would pay the city $5,000 each day until the work was completed.

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The extension waives that penalty. It also means the city won’t have a final cost estimate for the project until after it applies for federal financing.

And it means that voters won’t know until after the election if the City Council’s decision to award the contract to Wichita Water Partners saved the city money.

A city selection committee last year unanimously recommended awarding the contract to Jacobs Engineering. Instead, at Mayor Jeff Longwell’s urging, the City Council awarded the contract to Wichita Water Partners.

A Wichita Eagle investigation last month revealed undisclosed relationships between Longwell and contractors on the Wichita Water Partners team. Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said he is investigating complaints about Longwell prompted by The Eagle’s investigation.

Longwell told The Eagle he is longtime friends with two presidents of companies on the Wichita Water Partners team. He said his relationships, meetings and golf trips didn’t influence his decisions as mayor.

Instead, he said, he based his decision on which company promised to provide the most local jobs at the lowest price.

The plant was originally estimated to cost about $524 million. Longwell has said the changes he proposed in selecting Wichita Water Partners could save the city $75 million. Dropping the requirement that the builder operate the plant for two years could save another $80 million, he said.

Whether the city will realize those savings is unclear until Wichita Water Partners turns in a final price.

City Council members, including Longwell, have stressed that the contract with Wichita Water Partners doesn’t mean the city will necessarily award the rest of the project to Wichita Water Partners, leaving open the possibility that the city could cancel the contract.

“I think the message was received loud and clear by everyone involved that this has to be brought in responsibly in a way that minimizes the impact on ratepayers,” Council Member Bryan Frye told The Eagle last month. “We still have phase two (the rest of the contract) that has yet to be awarded.”

The city is building the Northwest Water Treatment Facility near 21st and Hoover to replace its 80-year-old facility in Riverside. City officials have said the existing plant could fail at any moment and its upkeep is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars until the new plant gets built.

An Oversight Steering Committee for the new plant has held several planning meetings, but those have been closed to the public. The first meeting open to the public will be at 1 p.m. Friday on the 10th Floor of City Hall.

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.
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