Sunday, October 13, 2013

Oconee County Commissioners Approved Lease For Space in Government Annex But Not Bids For Renovation

Unusual Procedure

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved two bids last Tuesday night, one for $17,000 and another for $52,562.

The action was routine. County Finance Director Wes Geddings presented the six submitted bids to the Board with a recommendation at the Sept. 24 agenda-setting meeting.

The Board accepted the recommendation without discussion and gave the selected bids formal approval at the regular meeting on Tuesday.

Directory At Front Door Of Annex
Oconee River RC&D is USDA Also

That routine was not followed in March, however, when the county received two bids for renovation work at the Government Annex on SR 15 in the south of Watkinsville.

The county accepted one of those two bids without bringing the bids to the Board for action in a public meeting.

In fact, the BOC never voted in an open meeting to do the renovation.

The story of how the county made the decision to renovate space in the Government Annex for the USDA is a complex one, and one that is difficult to follow in the public records available.

Lease Announced

County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko announced at the BOC meeting on July 30 that the county had reached an agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture for lease of space in the Government Annex.

In order to secure that lease, Benko said, the county had spent $33,000 on the renovation to provide needed information technology (he said “IT”) for the Farm Service Agency, a unit of USDA.

Benko told the commissioners the county had spent the money for renovation up front, and that the USDA would pay it back over time.

He didn’t tell the commissioners that the repayment would be without interest, though those are the terms of the Supplemental Lease Agreement that BOC Chairman Melvin Davis signed on behalf of the county on Aug. 9.

None of the commissioners questioned the expense, though Commissioner Margaret Hale did ask about length of the lease. The Supplemental Lease Agreement stipulates that the $33,000 will be paid over the 10-year term of the primary lease, and that is what Benko told Hale.

Benko's and Geddings' Explanation

I asked Benko in an email message I sent him on Aug. 1 when the BOC had approved the expenditure.

Benko responded on Aug. 6 that the “renovations were included in the FY13 Budget for renovations/capital repairs for the Government Annex.”

The money came from funds left over from the 2004 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, Benko said.

I next asked Finance Director Geddings for a copy of the FY13 SPLOST Budget.

It lists $50,000 under the general category of County Facilities-Maintenance. No mention is made of the renovation at the Government Annex.

Geddings told me in an email message on Aug. 13 that “the $50,000 in the 2013 SPLOST 2004 account covered the IT renovation” at the Government Annex. He was referring to the FY 2013 budget for 2004 SPLOST.

That budget had been approved in May of 2012, before the county knew it had a lease agreement with the USDA.

The county did not seek bids for the Annex renovation until March 7 of this year.

USDA Told To Leave In 2010

The lease the BOC approved on Aug. 6, with Commissioner John Daniell voting in the negative, represents a reversal of course for the Board.

In May of 2010, then County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told the Board that, consistent with its wishes, he would inform the USDA that the county no longer wished to lease it space in the Government Annex.

The plan was to vacate the property the county leases across the street from the courthouse, referred to as the Courthouse Annex, and move the offices there to a renovated Government Annex.

That plan fell through in November of 2012, when the Commissioners could not agree on a renovation plan.

Commissioners Daniell and Hale supported a motion to go forward with plans to spend just less than $2 million on the renovation, but they could not get the support of Commissioner Jim Luke and then-Commissioner Chuck Horton.

Commission Chairman Davis broke the tie and then joined with Luke and Horton in a motion to cease planning for the renovation and to renegotiate the lease with the USDA. Hale and Daniell opposed that motion.

In the video below from the meeting on Aug. 6, Commissioner Daniell explains his opposition to the USDA lease by referring to his desire to move county offices to the space.

Contract With USDA

The county’s agreement with the USDA calls for the federal government to lease 3,050 square feet of space from the county for $21,348 per year, for 10 years. Benko told the BOC that the old lease payment was for $10,752 per year.

Plans submitted to the county in 2010 indicated that the Government Annex has 20,160 square feet of space, though county tax records use the figure of 21,875.

The Government Annex now houses the county’s Public Works and Utility departments, an adult education program of Athens Technology College, as well as the USDA offices.

The proposal had been to move the Planning Department, the Code Enforcement Department, and a series of smaller offices from the Courthouse Annex to the Government Annex, but this was possible only if the USDA and Athens Technology College gave up their space.

Finance Director Geddings told me that the county is paying $76,656 per year to lease the two buildings that make up the Courthouse Annex.

Supplement Lease Agreement

The single-page Supplemental Lease Agreement covers “construction, alteration, and renovation services” for the Automatic Data Processing room used by the USDA.

It states that the renovation cost was $33,000 and that the federal government will pay $275 monthly to cover the renovation cost on top of the $3,050 monthly rental rate agreed upon in the base lease document.

The $275 supplemental payment will be made monthly for 10 years “with zero percent interest applied.”

Benko told the BOC on July 30 that he was hopeful the federal government would pay the $33,000 in advance.

RFP For Server Room

The county issued a request for proposal for “Reconstruction of Server Room-Oconee County Government Annex” on March 7 and held a preconference meeting on March 14.

The county received two bids, one from Hollandsworth Construction of Dacula and the other from Highlander Design & Build, 1482 Clotfelter Road in Oconee County.

Highlander had the high bid of $35,250. Hollandsworth bid $32,905.

Marvin Poe, county operations and facility director, wrote to Micah McCracken, owner of Highlander, on April 10 asking him to submit a different cost proposal.

McCracken replied the next day, and Poe immediately wrote to Karen Barnett in the Finance Department indicating that “Highlander is my recommended contractor to do this work” for the county.

McCracken’s revised bid was $32,750.

SPLOST Funding

The $32,750 is a small expenditure in the context of reserves in the 2004 SPLOST fund.

The BOC asked voters in the county to approve $4.6 million for “County Facilities Expansion & Renovation” in the 2004 initiative, and, as of June 30, 2012, the county had spent only $821,543 of that amount.

The FY 2013 budget called for spending the $50,000, from that account, and in the current fiscal year, the budget calls for spending $82,600.

The next report on SPLOST spending, as of June 30, 2013, is not due out until the end of the year.

The roughly $3.7 million in unspent SPLOST 2004 funds is a concern to the Board of Commissioners as they start work on the next SPLOST, to be on the ballot next summer.

At an informal planning session in January, Administrative Officer Benko told the Board that he wanted it either to spend the money or have a plan to spend the money before the vote.

The video below has a lot of extraneous noise because it was shot from a distance while the commissioners were eating, but it captures the argument Benko was making. He also refers to the 2009 SPLOST, which is currently in effect.

The commissioners agreed with Benko’s argument and discussed the possible purchase of property that might be used for a future courthouse.

Nothing more has been said about that option in a public meeting since that time.

Nearly Empty Folder

Obtaining information on the decision to spend the $33,000 for the renovation for the USDA offices proved to be unusually difficult.

Benko responded to my request for the lease agreement by sending me a copy electronically. Geddings provided me with links on the Carl Vinson Institute of Government for the county’s SPLOST budgets and helped me read them.

An open records request I filed on Aug. 20 for written correspondence between “Melvin Davis, Alan Theriault and/or Jeff Benko and the United States Department of Agriculture regarding the lease of space in the Oconee County Government Annex” from Jan. 1, 2010, to that date produced only three documents.

The first was an email exchange from Theriault to the commissioners on Sept. 6, 2012, saying that the USDA had agreed to a 10-year lease.

Another was the lease Benko had sent me. The supplemental lease agreement was not included.

The third was a statement from the federal General Services Administration indicating that the renovation for the USDA had been completed. That document was dated July 31, 2013.

Second Open Records Request

I asked Geddings in an email message on Aug. 30 for the bid documents for the renovation. He told me to file an open records request, and I did so that evening.

That produced the RFP and the Highlander bid as well as the correspondence from Operations and Facility Director Poe recommending the bid.

The charge was $11.75.

Third Open Records Request

On Sept. 14 I asked Benko and Geddings if there were more than one bid.

On Sept. 17 Geddings sent me a list containing the names of the two bidders.

I followed that same day by asking to review the Hollandsworth bid, pointing out that was covered by the initial open records request.

Geddings told me to submit another open records request for the Hollandsworth bid, which I did that evening.

I received a copy of that bid and a bill for $13.58 on Sept. 20.

Request for Supplemental Agreement

I telephoned Benko on Oct. 2 to ask about the lease agreement on repayment of the loan.

Benko discussed the details of the supplemental agreement and promised to send me a copy of it.

He did not mention that the loan was without interest, and I emailed him after we spoke for a clarification.

He responded that the agreement did not include interest.

Benko sent me a copy of that agreement on Oct. 3.

I did not file an open records request for the email correspondence over the lengthy period of discussion because I know from past experience these easily can cost close to $100. I would have had to cover email from Theriault, who has not worked for the county for more than a year.

Routine Bids Approved Tuesday

After Finance Director Geddings presented the six submitted bids to the Board at the Sept. 24 agenda-setting meeting, the BOC put them on the consent agenda for routine approval at the meeting last Tuesday.

One was for $17,000 to Enviromasters for work on the Mars Hill Road widening.

The other was to Garrett paving for $52,563 for a crack and seal program for county roads.

1 comment:

Beanne said...

Thank you for looking into this. Wonder why they are making your inquiries so difficult and costly? I appreciate your actions so they know someone is looking at what they are doing.