COVINGTON -- Durden's Lawn Maintenance, which holds the county's lawn care contract, does not have a valid business license.
Based on records at the Department of Development Services, owner Billy Durden has not renewed a business license that expired on Dec. 31. In addition, it appears Durden, who has provided lawn maintenance for the county for 12 years, may have operated without a business license for five years, from 2002 to 2006, and has consistently had late renewals since 2007.
Commissioners on Feb. 5 approved by a 3 to 2 vote a five-year contract for Durden. At the meeting, Commissioner Nancy Schulz asked Durden if he had a business license in Newton County, and he responded yes. County Manager John Middleton then instructed Durden to follow up with the business license office because records indicated he did not. Durden stated that he had until March to renew but that he would take care of it. Durden's license had not been renewed as of Monday.
Business licenses expire on Dec. 31 of the year in which they are obtained. Although penalties are not assessed until March 15 of the following year, there is no grace period on the license itself, according to Scott Sirotkin, director of the Department of Development Services.
Commissioners Levie Maddox and John Douglas both said they did not hear the comment made by Middleton regarding the business license at the meeting.
But Douglas, who initially voted in favor of the contract, said he will vote to put the service out to bid.
"We had no idea of the background of not having business licenses. That's new information for me," Douglas said Monday.
"That changes the whole picture in my mind and so tomorrow night, either I or somebody else will probably amend the agenda in order to revisit this, and I plan to vote to send this out to bid. This is entirely unacceptable, the way it's unfolded and we need to step back and make a change before it costs the county any money," he added.
Later, Douglas notified the Citizen that, "After talking to other commissioners, it is likely we will see a 4-1 or 5-0 vote (Tuesday night) to reopen the grass cutting contract and send it to the bidding process. The board meets at 7 p.m. in the Newton County Historic Courthouse.
Durden could not be reached for comment.
Maddox said he was "disappointed in the data, to say the least."
"I certainly did not have this picture or history prior to this vote. Again, my focus is to review and influence the purchasing guidelines to ensure we provide the best outcomes for Newton County. Thankfully, this process has just started. The Board should have been more informed about this situation prior to the decision making process."
Maddox is referring to the board's discussion of new purchasing policy guidelines at its planning retreat this weekend. A story will follow later this week in the Citizen on that discussion.
Records at the Department of Development Services show that Durden operated without a valid business license for 11 months last year, renewing on Nov. 7. In addition, he operated for eight months without a valid license in 2008, renewing on Aug. 22. That year, Durden's file indicates a notice was issued, meaning that a code enforcement officer contacted Durden to find out if he was still in business and notify him that he needed to renew.
Licenses were also not renewed by the deadline for several more years, with renewals on Feb. 9, 2011, Feb. 24 in 2010, Feb. 9 in 2009 and Feb. 28 in 2007. A notation in the file states "needs to know how much he owes for past five years" referring to the years 2002 through 2006. The Department of Development Services does not have any records of business licenses issued to Durden's for those years. A notation on the 2007 license renewal shows that Durden owed a total of $595, with the majority of that owed for years 2002 through 2006, calling into question whether Durden had a business license during those years.
"I'm a business owner and I know sometimes things fall through the cracks, but this looks like more of a pattern than something just isolated," said Schulz, who, along with Commissioner Lanier Sims, opposed the contract. Both wanted to seek requests for proposals for the lawn care service.
"I think it's important that if we're going to have policies, if we're going to have fees, that we expect business owners to follow, then we need to consistently enforce those," she added.
"That's one of the concerns I have with just renewing the contract and not going back through and doing due diligence. Things fall through the cracks and it makes it an unfair playing field that others in the county have to comply," she said.
The recycling center service contract was also approved by a 3 to 2 vote by commissioners on Feb. 5, going to Junior Hilliard Services, which has held the contract for 18 years. Hilliard's licenses for the past several years were renewed on time with a few exceptions, most notably for a 10 month period in 2007.
Asked if there needs to be more scrutiny of county contractors before contracts are approved or renewed, Schulz responded, "We need a real clear policy and then we need to be able to enforce it or else we don't need to require it from anybody."
Douglas said, "In order for us to make the right decision we have to have the correct information. This is a lesson for all of us. As we used to say in the Army, bad information equals bad decisions."