The industrial development authorities of Oconee and Athens-Clarke counties in early 2012 granted two no-bid contracts totaling $870,079 to Williams and Associates land planners of Oconee County for engineering services for the Caterpillar project.
Georgia law requires bidding for construction projects, but not for the professional services provided by Williams and Associates, according to Oconee County Attorney Daniel Haygood.
The contracts with Williams have not been a secret, though they also have not been widely discussed. The relationship has been mentioned in open meetings of the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority when payments have been made to Williams.
At the same time, the county has made it difficult for individuals to obtain information about the contracts.
As of the end of October of last year, Oconee County had paid Williams and Associates $296,379, according to financial records from the Oconee County IDA. Athens-Clarke County shares costs for the Caterpillar project equally, making the total payment just less than $600,000.
Details of Contract
The first contract was signed by the two IDAs on Jan. 30, 2012, and was for $259,000. It included fees for geotechnical borings, a boundary survey, and a rough grading plan for the Caterpillar site.
|Williams At Meeting 11/21/2013|
The second contract was signed on Feb. 17, 2012, for $611,079 and covered traffic signal design, construction staking, contract administration, bid management, and sanitary sewer extension design.
The vendor activity report for Williams and Associates shows the company being paid by Oconee County $32,811 in April of 2012, $63,828 in May, $50,509 in June, and $51,164 in July.
I obtained the contracts and vendor activity report through a series of open records requests I filed late last year.
Amounts paid to Williams and Associates have been smaller since July of 2012, and the county paid only $1,592 in the most recent transaction shown on the report I received. The date was Oct. 28.
All projects have the simple description as “infrastructure.”
Jon Williams Is President
Oconee County Finance Director Wes Geddings said Williams and Associates can submit expenses up to the contract amount at any point in the future. The contracts do not specify end dates.
Jon Williams is president and principal-in-charge of Williams and Associates, with its offices at 2470 Daniells Bridge Road near the Oconee Connector.
According to the company web site, Williams and Associates was founded in 1999.
County records show that Williams and Associates had billed the county $3,856 in 2011 for “professional services,” some connected to the Gateway Business Park owned by the IDA on SR 316 near the Barrow County border.
Two Counties Spent $19 Million
Caterpillar announced it was moving the manufacturing for small track-type tractors and mini hydraulic excavators from a plant in Japan to its site on the Oconee and Clarke county border near Bogart on Feb. 17, 2012.
The grand opening of the Caterpillar plant was held on Oct. 31 of last year.
The two counties, through their industrial development authorities, have spent $19,369,772, including the fees paid to Williams and Associates, to underwrite the move by Caterpillar.
The authorities bought the land and built roadways and water and sewer lines for the plant.
Roadway Sunk And Broke
I first learned about the Williams and Associates contract for engineering services in October after I observed sinking and breaking of the roadway for Orkin Drive, the main connector to the Caterpillar plant off U.S. 78 in Athens-Clarke County.
I contacted County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko and asked him about responsibility for the repair, since both counties had accepted the roadways.
|Orkin Drive Reconstruction 12/19/2013|
He told me that was something the county was trying to determine at that time and that Williams and Associates had engineering responsibility for the roadway.
Ultimately, the two counties determined that the sinking was due to an old waste pit deep beneath the highway leading to the new Caterpillar plant and decided to assume responsibility for rebuilding the roadway themselves.
They did that work in late December.
Open Records Request Rejected
I filed an open records request to review the contract and bids for the contract with County Clerk Jane Greathouse on Nov. 18. Greathouse is the open records officer for the county, and open records requests completed on the county web site go to her.
Greathouse sent me a message on Nov. 19 saying:
“It has been determined that Oconee County does not have documents that are responsive to your request. You may wish to contact the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority (OCIDA) as they maintain such records. Angela Helwig serves as OCIDA Open Records Officer.”
Helwig’s office is in the same suite of offices as Greathouse’s office and a short distance away.
Greathouse copied Helwig on her response, as well as Rick Waller, chairman of the IDA, County Attorney Haygood, and members of the Board of Commissioners.
IDA Members Appointed By BOC
Members of the IDA are appointed by the Board of Commissioners, and BOC Chairman Melvin Davis serves as an ex-officio member of the IDA.
The IDA relies on County Attorney Haygood for legal advice, meets in the Grand Jury Room of the Courthouse, uses the services of Helwig, who also serves as receptionist for the BOC offices, as well as of Finance Director Geddings and Development Officer Rusty Haygood.
In response to a subsequent question from me, Greathouse said I could simply forward my request to Helwig.
I sent that request to Helwig on Nov. 19, but I mistakenly sent it to her personal, rather than county, email address. I corrected that the next day.
Contracts Made Available
Helwig made the two contracts between the IDA and Williams and Associates available to me on Nov. 21.
I was charged for 45 minutes of search and retrieval costs at $10.30 per hour, and granted 15 minutes free, consistent with the state law. I was charged $0.10 per page for copying 21 pages, again consistent with state law. The total bill was $7.25.
Helwig wrote me in an email message on Nov. 21:
“Regarding your request for ‘advertisements for bids on these services and copies of other bids submitted in response to the advertisements as well as materials created as part of any internal review of those bids,’ no related records exist.”
I contacted Attorney Haygood by email on Nov. 30, and he responded on Dec. 2 saying that the county did not have to get bids for service contracts.
Second Open Records Request of IDA
On Dec. 9, I asked Helwig for a list of payments to Jon Williams and/or Williams and Associates from July 1, 2011, through the present.
I also asked to see the annual budgets for the IDA for fiscal years 2012, 2013 and 2014.
And I asked to see how much money was spent by the IDA for the services of County Attorney Haygood.
Helwig sent me the budgets as an attachment to an email message on Dec. 11. She said the remaining materials could not be made available until Dec. 19.
Dec. 19 Response
Helwig sent me an email message on Dec. 19 saying the remaining documents I requested were available.
She attached an invoice.
I was charged for 2 hours and 15 minutes of time at $22 per hour, minus 15 minutes, and 13 pages at $0.10 per page, for the total of $45.30.
On Dec. 20, Helwig sent me another email saying that the IDA could not provide me records on payments to County Attorney Haygood because he “is not paid by the IDA but by the county and a record does not exist for a breakdown of payments on behalf of the IDA.”
County Finance Director Geddings’ office produced the financial records sent me on IDA transactions with Williams and Associates.
I asked him in an email message in early January about the gap between the contract amount for Williams and Associates and the amount paid by the county by the end of last year.
He wrote me on Jan. 9 that Williams and Associates is “the only vendor for the CAT project who has a balance remaining on their contract.”
Geddings wrote that “It is not uncommon for engineering final invoicing to lag behind other invoices during construction projects.”
Note: An earlier version of this story had an error in the headline. I apologize and thank a reader for calling it to my attention.