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Water softener headache may still not be a for-sure done deal

By Staff | Apr 27, 2009

Readers of the Register have seen a lot of information over the past many months concerning the water conditioning system at the new Faribault County Law Enforcement Center.

There has been a bigger brouhaha over this one item than any other, except perhaps the need for the jail itself. The county board has spent countless hours on this one aspect of the new jail, and are totally frustrated with it.

Because of a recent story, county residents may believe the saga that has been termed ‘soft-watergate’ is over.  A bid has been awarded. We can only hope that is true, but I am not sure it is.

First, a little history.

The water softener system was scheduled to be installed months ago, but was pulled out of a list of ‘requests for proposals’ and delayed until a later date.

One of the reasons for doing this was a desire by the county commissioners to have local firms bid on the project, instead of the general contractor hiring it done.

I pause here and say I applaud the board for doing this. In fact, the commissioners have gone above and beyond in attempting to have local companies do a lot of the work on the new LEC. In many cases, this has worked out. From the building walls themselves, supplied by Wells Concrete, to much of the work inside and out, local firms have been involved.

When the water softener quotes were finally obtained, some local companies were involved in the bids. However, there soon appeared to be some problems with trying to match up the quotes and fairly compare them in an apples to apples, oranges to oranges way.

The problem, it seems, was in interpreting the bids. All of the systems were different. Some used a one-tank system, some a two-tank one, for instance. Some supplied soft water all the time, some had to have regeneration time. And no one had a clue how much salt any of the systems would be using, or even if this should be a concern.

The county awarded the bid, but soon learned the contractor was not signing the contract, due to a problem with being able to follow the specs.

Instead of awarding the bid to another of the firms, the board decided to have new plans and specs drawn up and ask for new quotes.

This time there were only two bids, and the board took the low one. However, it was not an easy choice. The two bids were vastly different, one at $15,000 and one at $30,000. Whenever there is that much discrepancy, red flags should go up. And they did.

The commissioners were concerned, and while they voted to take the lower quote, they also voted to hire an expert to inspect the job, making sure it followed the specs.

I think they should have hired the expert in the first place, to write the specs and get the job done right, and in a timely manner.

One local water softener contractor, Jeremy Coxworth of Coxworth Water Conditioning in Blue Earth, agrees.

Coxworth was one of the lower bidders in the first go-round of ‘requests for proposals.’ However he didn’t submit one for the second round, because he felt the specs were too confusing and too restrictive. Plus, he says, there were changes in the specs right at the last second, making it difficult, if not impossible, to supply an accurate quote.

Some of the specs, he says, are unnecessary and too costly. Items such as brass valves and 3-inch – instead of 2-inch – copper pipe are materials he feels are not worth the expense.

As an example, he points to a system he recently installed in the hospital for just over $9,000. That system, he explains, would work just fine in the new jail.

Let’s see. Spend $9,000, $15,000 or $30,000? And get the same job done? I know what I would choose.

After all, it isn’t the security system at the jail. It’s just a water conditioner.

Who is to blame for this mess? While there is plenty of blame to go around, no one is accepting it.

Commissioners say they are not engineers, and have relied on others for the plans and specs. One of those is the company they hired to build the jail. While the commissioners thought the architect and construction manager were overseeing the bids and making sure they met specs, that, obviously, was not being done. They both say the bids appeared to be able to furnish a system which would deliver the water at the pressure needed.

But as far as following all the plans in the specs, and following the material list precisely, they apparently don’t know any more than the commissioners (or me, for that matter) about water softener systems.

That is why the expert who the board now wants to bring in, should have been hired back when this mess all started.

It sure would have prevented this soft-watergate from ever happening.