Monday, September 10, 2007

Written 9/10/2007

What About Those Bids?

Oconee County has tossed out the three bids it received for the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant and will begin the process anew, according to Alan Theriault, administrative officer for the County.

Theriault sent me an e-mail message on September 7, three days after the Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted to upgrade the Rocky Branch plant, saying he plans "to meet with Utility Department personnel in the next several days to discuss particulars of moving forward and develop a rough time-line."

Theriault said he expected the initial step to be a "Request for Qualifications" advertisement "to identify design firms or teams that have specific experience with membrane filtration wastewater systems and that would be interested in this project."

The Utility Department had selected Jordan Jones & Goulding as its preferred bidder from among three firms that submitted bids for the project on July 31, 2007. JJ&G had proposed abandoning the membrane filtrate technology specified in the request for proposals in favor of a more traditional approach that produces lower quality water than membrane filtration.

The BOC brushed aside concerns of a full room of citizens when it voted unanimously to go forward with the Rocky Branch expansion.

On behalf of the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek, I had asked the BOC to guarantee that treated water from the plant will not be released into Barber Creek during floods, to agree to treat the water to the highest level the technology will allow, and to provide for independent monitoring of the plant.

At the September 4 meeting, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis said the concerns focused on operation of the plant and should be addressed at a later time.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke sent me e-mail messages after the meeting restating their willingness to discuss these requests. Commissioner Don Norris said not a word at the meeting and has not written me since.

At the meeting, I asked the Board to at least pass a resolution confirming its intent to respond to these concerns, but it refused.

Citizens who have depended on the media for an understanding of what is going on with the Rocky Branch upgrade are in a bind.

The Athens Banner-Herald has yet to write a word about the September 4 decision on Rocky Branch, though it did run a lengthy report about the BOC’s decision to join with Walton County on the Hard Labor Creek reservoir. That commitment is for an estimated $48 million. The Rocky Branch upgrade is expected to cost another $8-10 million.

The Oconee Enterprise had lengthy stories on both the reservoir and the Rocky Branch upgrade it its September 6 edition. The reporting was largely on target.

The Oconee Leader didn’t report on either vote in its September 6 edition, though it did put a story on its web site that day that provided a short but accurate account of the votes at the meeting.

Neither of these papers, however, reported on what happened to the three bids or what will happen next.

On July 31, the day the bids were opened, Utility Director Chris Thomas reported to the BOC that three bids had been received and indicated that he would be back in a week with a recommendation. The Utility Department leaders also said that the BOC should decide how to allocate the new sewage capacity between residential and commercial users.

On August 7, Thomas reported to the BOC that he was recommending JJ&G for the contract. Chairman Davis tried to get the Board to move on the recommendation, but it refused. Commissioner Hale said the Board had never voted to upgrade Rocky Branch. Commissioner Horton said he was opposed to JJ&G.

Utility Department head Thomas, however, is quoted in August 16 issue of The Oconee Enterprise as saying JJ&G was "still a viable option. The Board simply needs more information."
The agenda for the September 4 meeting gave no indication of what Chairman Davis would ask the Board to do. The action item was: "Consider upgrade of Land Application System." No sewage water presently leaves the Rocky Branch site; it is sprayed on hay fields on the property in what is termed a land application system.

When I posted my report (below) on 9/2/2007, pointing out that JJ&G had proposed eliminating the membrane system, was involved in the initial planning stages for the plant, and had been selected in part by members of a firm with which it has partnered in the past, I sent it to Commissioners Hale, Horton and Luke. I also sent it to the Banner-Herald and The Oconee Leader.

In accordance with an agreement I made with Chairman Davis on August 30, in exchange for being given access to the BOC chamber projection system and for being allowed to make a 12-minute presentation on behalf of the four Friends of Barber Creek Board members, I provided Davis with a copy of my comments on September 3.

In early afternoon on September 4, Davis e-mailed me at my office and asked me to call him. He then told me he saw no problems with our request that Rocky Branch meet a higher standard of discharge, since it already was doing that. He also said the County was committed to membrane filtration for the new plant.

He did not indicate that the bids would be tossed out, that the vote would be only whether to upgrade, or that no decision would be made about the three requests the Friends of Barber Creek leadership was making.

After I made our presentation at the meeting, however, Davis asked the BOC if it was ready to make a decision to move forward on Barber Creek.

Commissioner Hale asked Assistant Utility Director John Hatcher if the County was considering eliminating the membrane filtration system. Hatcher said the proposal was to use another technology to supplement the membrane system, but membranes would still be used.

The JJ&G bid recommended eliminating membranes entirely.

Hatcher also told Hale that the upgrade will include water storage facilities large enough to hold water for 28 days without discharging into Barber Creek. He said that would be enough for any flood period. He said the upgrade would cost between $8-10 million, though earlier estimates had been $6-8 million.

Commissioner Norris next made a motion to approve the upgrade. Commissioner Horton seconded. All four of the Commissioners voters to approve. The Chairman only votes in the case of a tie.

Before the vote, I tried to get Davis to let me speak again. He ignored me. After the vote, I continued to try. Commissioner Luke told Davis he wanted to let me come forward to speak again. Davis agreed.

I told the Board I thought we had "been outmaneuvered."

During the exchange, I reminded Davis that he earlier had rejected a request from the Friends of Barber Creek leadership to speak before the BOC on the grounds that he already knew what our concerns were. He said he had not rejected our request because he had allowed us to speak that night.

Davis sent me an e-mail on the morning of September 6, saying "You received the assurance from the Board that your requests would be reviewed and decisions will be made at the appropriate time when facility operational matters are considered. I view this as a positive result. I believe we all want a facility that is effective, efficient, economical, and environmentally friendly. When all is complete, I trust we will reach that goal."

I told Administrative Officer Theriault in e-mail messages on September 5 and 7 that I want to be informed about procedures to be followed in this second bidding process for the upgrade and that the Friends of Barber Creek leadership wants to review all the steps.

I also have told Chairman Davis and Commissioners Hale, Horton and Luke that we will not go away.

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