Audit cites history of no bid contract

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

As county commissioners intend to meet with school board members about how their janitors could maintain other county buildings, state auditors report the county's repeated failure to get competitive bids for such county contracts.

"This deficiency exists because of the failure of management to correct this finding noted in prior audit reports," according to the most recent audit by the Division of County Audit in the Office of the Comptroller of the State Treasury.

Commissioner Billy Spivey got an early copy of that audit. He's not alleging criminal intent and notes steps toward reform are being taken, but he says the audit shows county officials were warned twice before on this very subject.

"You can only flash the stupid card once," Spivey said of any claim of ignorance of the law and the county's apparent history revealed by "prior audit reports" reminding county officials: "State law provides for all purchases over $10,000 to be made after public advertisements and solicitation of competitive bids."

That finding, according to Commissioner Mickey King refers to a $104,604 cleaning contract for a service officials prefer because of their experience with others.

"Other groups have come in and things have gone missing," King said.

"They are higher," he said of the service that's been used for more than six years, "but they're not nosing around."

Annual audits have pointed to the lack of bids for cleaning services and county officials "have elected to take that finding" by auditors, King said, emphasizing, "That cleaning company has never given us a problem."

King, who's the county budget committee chairman, agrees that Spivey has a different opinion on whether bids should be called on that contract, "and I'm glad he does." It improves the debate on county business, King said.

In a related matter, Spivey has focused on the subject of a five-year, $835,000 contract for building maintenance and three new heating, ventilation and cooling units recommended in October by the county's Building Committee and subsequently authorized by the Commission.

Last week, Commissioners King, Don Ledford, Scottie Poarch and Jimmy Wolaver, Accounts and Budget Director Freda Terry, and Sheriff Les Helton reviewed proposed specifications for maintenance of county buildings including the Courthouse, its Annex, the Jail, Sheriff's Office, the Hardison Annex offices and other county-owned buildings. Specifications for cleaning services, grass mowing and maintenance of fire extinguishers were also reviewed, but not set.

It was to familiarize themselves before meeting with School Board members Craig Michael, Curt Denton and Randy Perryman about how the school system's maintenance department might serve more county buildings. Potential meeting dates discussed for the conference included April 14, 20, or 21, but Tuesday King said it will probably be later.

According to several county officials, assigning school maintenance crews to other county buildings was proposed last year, but the idea never took root for lack of a full discussion. Some commissioners have said they thought the arrangement was set. Then, as the Carrier Corp. contract was expiring last fall, it was renewed with explanations that because there was no agreement with school officials, something had to be done, so commissioners accepted Carrier's offer to renew its contract, add two years and some HVAC units.

Subsequently, auditors advised that's contrary to state law, so the budget director issued a request for proposals from maintenance companies to offer services and state prices. Carrier and Lewisburg Plumbing & Heating responded, but comparisons were complicated without specifications. And, as reported last winter, commissioners agreed to Terry's request to have the two companies help her write the specifications.

Since then, talks between commissioners and members of the school board have increased.

"I think they're on the right track now and I've taken it up as a personal project to help them for maintenance of the equipment before it breaks," Spivey said Monday night.

His "personal" interest in this part of county government is substantiated by his employment as the maintenance supervisor at Walker Die Casting, one of the biggest employers in town and one of the largest single die casting facilities in the country.

"It's one of the few things in this world that I really know about," Spivey said of maintenance.

"I honestly don't think anybody's intent is wrong," he continued during a lengthy telephone interview, "but if you continue to do things... people will be suspicious.

"I don't care for people to be unsettled because I brought something up," he said, emphasizing, "I want them to know I'm not attacking them."

If county leaders want the schools' maintenance department to take care of county buildings, too, then they ought to "set it up for success instead of failure," Spivey said. "I think it will work now."

The audit Spivey quoted is a review of spending during the 2007-08 fiscal year that ended on June 30 last year, well before the Buildings Committee's October recommendation for renewal and extension of Carrier's maintenance contract.

King points out the latest audit cites the cleaning contract, not the maintenance contract.

"That will be on next year's audit," King said.

This year the Comptroller's Division of County Audit of spending in fiscal year 2007-08 says "Competitive bids were not solicited for cleaning services for county buildings."

"It's a different service, but it's the same type thing" as mainrtenence, Spivey said. "Sooner or later we've got to be uncomfortable with being ignorant and educate ourselves..."

Such reform is needed to overcome a perception among some officials that the county and the auditors "can agree to disagree," Spivey said, objecting to it because violations have consequences even though auditors don't prosecute.

In other public discussions, Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill has acknowledged that state audits are sent to the District Attorney's office, and Monday night, Spivey noted litigation can arise from misdeeds.

"You can disagree with the auditor, but you can't disagree with the facts they uncover that show it's against the law," Spivey said. "You can't continue to violate the law...

"People want to see their money spent wisely and they want everybody to have the same opportunity," he said. "There are several reasons for the competitive bidding. One is that it makes good business sense to make people compete for the work."

Spivey isn't the only commissioner who's questioned the chain of events. Scottie Poarch told the Building Committee last week that he's "proud" steps are being taken to schedule and prepare for a meeting with School Board members about expanded responsibilities of the school system's maintenance staff.

Two months ago, Poarch moved for that, he reminded the committeemen, adding, "I couldn't get a second" so discussion could start on the floor. "What changed?"

Commissioner Mickey King replied that was before commissioners knew enough about the two contracts offered by Carrier and Lewisburg Plumbing & Heating. Now, they're examining all options, King said.

"The dilemma," Commissioner Don Ledford said, "was what to do about the contract we have" with Carrier.

Poarch replied, "We are already in violation."

Ledford pointed to a clause in the Carrier contract about a payment to cancel, but Spivey contends that since state auditors say the contract was entered without bids and contrary to state law, it's not a binding contract.

Poarch had another suggestion in response to concerns that if Carrier's contract was dropped that there'd be no maintenance. It comes from his own observations as a route truck driver delivering services to businesses.

Work at a local manufacturer "is so slow that they take care of their own maintenance," Poarch said. "I get wrote up if I don't keep my truck clean."

Shortly thereafter, Spivey snagged his coat sleeve on a nail protruding from the armrest of the chair he was on. The budget director got her tool box - a red two-pound, seven-ounce Folger's coffee can - withdrew a hammer and Spivey hammered the nail back into the armrest.

Later he recalled comments surrounding the repair during the meeting on maintenance.

"Two of them said 'That chair's a hanger.' One said it caught him. So why not do something about it? Get the hammer out and hit it back in," he said.

"It's not about mud slinging. It's about saying we made a mistake and we're not going to make it any longer."