Sunday, August 03, 2008

Rocky Branch Construction on Oconee BOC Agenda

Deciding Who Is At Risk

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners will be asked on Tuesday night to approve Southern Champion Construction, Inc., as the construction manager for the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant.

The request is scheduled to be made of the Commissioners by Chris Thomas, county Utility Department director, or his representative.

A selection team made up of Thomas, Utility Department Assistant Director John Hatcher, Emil Beshara, director of the county’s Public Works Department, and Jimmy Parker and Jim Sunta of Precision Planning, Inc., selected Southern Champion from among eight original and three short-listed bidders.

The Utility Department will ask the BOC to authorize it to request a cost proposal from and initiate contract negotiation with Southern so that Southern would become Construction Manager at Risk for the $8-10 million upgrade of the Rocky Branch plant, according to a report Thomas wrote to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis on July 28.

Construction Manager at Risk requires the construction manager to deliver the project at a guaranteed maximum price.

Bidding for the construction manager was conducted secretly, and the county has not yet released any of the bids. According to procedures the county is following, county administrators claim the county does not have to release any of the bids until after the BOC has voted on them.

Using this same secret bidding procedure, the County on March 4 selected HSF Engineering of Snellville to design the plant.

The county did change the nature of the committee that reviewed the bids in this most recent round of bidding.

In the November Request for Proposals for a company to provide engineering design and support for the sewage plant upgrade, the County BOC appointed a Selection Committee to evaluate the proposals.

The April Request for Qualifications merely stated that a Review Team would evaluate the bids.

In both cases, however, the Selection Committee/Review Team was doing its work on behalf of the BOC.

On that basis, I asked the state Attorney General earlier this year to require the county to follow the requirements of the open meetings law of Georgia.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter refused to require the county to follow those procedures.

According to the documents produced by the county in soliciting the bids for the Construction Manager at Risk, the county expects to begin construction on the Rocky Branch upgrade in October and complete the project in January of 2010.

Jeff Benko, director of finance for the county, gave me documents on Friday that showed that the Utility Department had revenue of $6.6 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007.

The Utility Department projected its 2007-2008 revenue to be $7.1 million, but by the end of March of 2008, it had taken in only $4.6 million. If the rate of revenue for those first nine months held for the next three, the department would have ended the fiscal year with only $6.1 million in revenue, or a million less than projected.

The Utility Department also spent less, since, under the water restrictions in place, it not only sold less water but it also bought less water to sell. In fiscal year 2007, however, the department had revenue in excess of expenses of $608,794, while in the first nine months of fiscal year 2008 it has revenue in excess of expenses of $386,132.

Projected out, that would suggest revenue in excess of expenses of $514,842.

For fiscal year 2009, however, the county has set the Utility Department revenue figure at less than $6.5 million, or $188,951 less than for fiscal year 2007.

How these changes in the budgeting affect thinking about the immediate need for and financing of the Rocky Branch upgrade has not been publicly discussed.

The huge mixed commercial and residential Parkside project, which seems to be going nowhere, had been touted as a source of income for the Utility Department. The county said it would sell reuse quality water from the Rocky Branch plant for lawn watering to the more than 800 single-family homes in Parkside. The development–between Mars Hill and Hog Mountain roads--also was expected to make a heavy demand for water and sewer services.

If the 1 million gallons per day of water treated by Rocky Branch isn’t reused for irrigation, it will be discharged into Barber Creek. Given the existence of the drought and that the county has promised to produce a very high quality water, discharge into the creek could be a plus–if everything works as planned.

On June 24, Hatcher from the Utility Department appeared before the BOC and indicated that the Review Team had met and selected three bidders from among the eight submitted. The meeting of the Review Team was not public.

The BOC authorized the Review Team to interview representatives from Southern Champion, P.F. Moon and Company and Crowder Construction Company. None of the firms has been further identified. Hatcher told the BOC on June 24 all had Georgia offices.

On July 27 I sent an e-mail message to Alan Theriault, county administrative officer, telling him I was "interested in reviewing bids for the construction of the Rocky Branch upgrade" and asked him to "advise me on the status of the review and what is available to the public for review at this time?"

Theriault told me after the BOC meeting on Tuesday of this week that he would have materials for me to review on Friday.

On Friday, Theriault gave me a copy of the July 28 report by Thomas to Davis, a summary evaluation sheet, and copies of e-mail correspondence among the member of the Review Team.

In an e-mail message of July 21 to Sunta, Parker and Beshara, Hatcher said that he and Thomas had contacted other municipalities that used Southern Champion and P.F. Moon.

Hatcher wrote that "it is clear that both firms are capable of doing the work but the experience of Southern Champion constructing this specific type of wastewater plant is more extensive and recent."

The e-mail further said: "Both the number of plants built and the fact that they have just finished a project for the city of Winder gives them (Southern) an advantage in determining the best possible price which is our second criterion."

Hatcher said that Moon has "not built a plant similar to that which has been proposed."

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