Council squabbles over office bid

COVINGTON - A squabble between City Council members over the cost to remodel the elected officials' office at City Hall means the council will go back to the drawing board on the project.

With the total cost coming in at about $30,000, four council members voted against the proposal on Monday.

"I think that's a lot of money in these economic times, but I know parts of that office need to be (re)done," said Councilman John Howard, one of the opposing votes.

Some of the remodeling, such as lighting, ceiling, wall covering and carpeting work, is already under way, at a cost of $7,301.02. All of those projects were put out to bid, with the low bidder accepted, according to documentation provided by the city of Covington.

The bid to supply furnishings from Susan Dario of Dario/Associates Inc. came in at $22,688.30. That price includes an estimate for shipping, installation, warehousing and a purchasing fee.

Dario, who is based in Atlanta, was hired by the council in September as a consultant to establish specifications for the remodeling job at a cost of $5,800.

She was the sole bidder to supply furnishings for the office, City Manager Steve Horton said. Two locals picked up bid packages but did not place bids, he said.

"I don't know why people didn't want to bid," said Howard, but speculated the furniture in the specifications was too "high-end."

"No, it's not," Mayor Kim Carter responded, adding that the committee charged with overseeing the project had worked hard to select American manufacturers. "For you to make that statement, it's unfounded."

The more than 20-page specifications document gives specific manufacturers, collections, materials and descriptions for each piece of furniture. Stanley Furniture of North Carolina is the primary manufacturer.

Included in the items listed in Dario's bid are the following: a desk chair costing $989.60 plus an additional $540 for leather, for a total cost of $1,529.60; a sofa at $1,181 plus $2,144.18 for fabric, for a total cost of $3,325.18; two toss pillows at $80 plus $246 for fabric, for a total cost of $326; and two side table lamps for $800.

Other items include end tables, a coffee table, two club chairs, a Queen Anne Chair, a desk lamp, a mirror, art and other accessories, a computer desk and hutch, a lateral file and lateral file hutch and a lamp table.

Councilman Mike Whatley made the motion to approve the bid, and Councilwoman Ocie Franklin gave the second. The vote failed 2 to 4, with Howard, Janet Goodman, Hawnethia Williams and Keith Dalton opposing.

"Now what do we do guys, put the old junk back in there? You can't even sit on the sofa. What do you want me to do? I can't make people bid on it," Carter said.

Goodman said she had expected the cost to be about half of what was presented, while Williams said she would like to see some reductions on certain items.

But Whatley, who served on the committee for the project along with Carter and Williams, said he believes the price is reasonable.

Carter said remodeling the office is key to the city's economic development, adding it's vital to make a good impression when other officials and industry and business representatives come to call. She added that the project is insignificant in light of the city's $130 million budget.

"With the flick of a pen or a raise of the hand, we have no problem spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on capital improvement projects," she said, adding that the office renovation is "no different than buying a $100,000 garbage truck."

Franklin agreed, saying the city spends "a lot of unnecessary money," adding that it can cost between $1,000 and $2,000 to remove a tree.

"Furniture is very expensive. It's not like it was 20 years ago," she said, adding that the furniture purchased for the office should be high-quality to last for years and, if necessary, be in good enough shape to be transported to a new City Hall.

When Carter asked the council to give her a reasonable cost estimate for the project, the group fell silent.

"Mr. Horton and Mr. Grotheer could you guys maybe get me a card table and four chairs and move that old desk back in there and I'll just sit on that?" Carter said, addressing the city manager and city clerk.

She said she is holding meetings at the Chamber of Commerce, with the office at City Hall gutted for repair work.

City Attorney Ed Crudup suggested that Dario should come back to the council with low-, moderate- and higher-priced furniture to give more options.

But Carter said that would only cost the city more in fees and doubted Dario would offer another option.

Ultimately, a new committee was formed to handle the project. The committee will include Dalton, Whatley and Franklin, along with the mayor.

Dario was Carter's original pick to handle the project back in June. At that time, her base fee of $6,000 plus cost estimates for the renovation totaled nearly $32,000. Dario is a client of Business Works Solutions Inc., Carter's consulting, bookkeeping and payroll solutions company. The council was deadlocked 3 to 3 on that decision, with Carter breaking the tie in favor of hiring Dario.

Two weeks later, however, the council agreed to put the project out for bid with an evaluation committee consisting of Carter, Whatley and Williams, to review the bids and made a recommendation to the council.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.

SideBar: City to reorganize to save money

By Crystal Tatum

Staff Reporter

COVINGTON - City Manager Steve Horton announced Monday night an organizational restructuring that will divide city departments into three divisions, each with its own director - a change he said will save money and provide more efficient use of resources.

The City Council had previously authorized Horton to hire an assistant city manager to take on some of his workload, but Horton said he couldn't see spending that kind of money in today's tough economic times.

Though the city is in good financial shape, "It still doesn't make sense to spend money where you don't have to spend money," he said.

Horton has divided city departments into three divisions: Administrative Services, Public Services and Public Safety.

The Administrative Services Division will include departments falling under personnel, information systems, the city clerk/finance director and planning and zoning. Personnel Director Ronnie Cowan will take on the director's post.

The Public Services Division will consist of the utilities, safety/risk management and public works departments. The director will be Utilities Director Bill Meecham, and Public Works Director Billy Bouchillon will be assistant director.

The third division, Public Safety, will include fire, police and 911. Police Chief Stacey Cotton will head up that division, with Fire Chief Don Floyd in the assistant director's post.

The city manager will oversee all divisions, along with the Main Street Covington program, the transportation manager, Municipal Court, the airport, and an administrative assistant.

An increase to the salaries of those being named as directors will cost the city between $21,000 and $25,000, compared to the $90,000 or more it would cost to hire an assistant city manager, Horton said.

In addition, the new structuring will improve accountability, information sharing and resource sharing, he said.

"Now we will have three responsible people working toward a common goal. We have more resources to call upon should something happen instead of having all of our resources being me and one other person," he said. "We're building a better future."

Horton added that his goal is to "be conservative fiscally but not operationally."

He added that the city has about 10 positions that are vacant that will not be filled in an effort to cut costs. If needed, work will be contracted out, he said.

Slots that will be filled include the recently approved new job of special projects manager/grant writer and an open code enforcement position.

Horton said he planned to send a memo to all city staff informing them of the organizational changes.

He was commended by Councilman John Howard for the new plan.

"I know up to this point we've always wanted you to get an assistant city manager, but this is a much better plan, and I applaud you for it," Howard said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.