COVINGTON -- The Board of Commissioners did not revisit the lawn maintenance contract Tuesday night, despite one commissioner's previous statement that he believed the contract would come up for a revote and be put out to bid.
After the Citizen notified commissioners that the current provider, Durden's Lawn Maintenance, did not have a valid business license when they approved his contract earlier this month; has a history of late renewals; and operated without a business license from 2002 to 2006, Commissioner John Douglas said Monday he expected the matter would be brought up for a revote Tuesday night. Douglas, who initially voted to approve the contract, said he would change his vote to put the contract out to bid.
But on Tuesday afternoon, prior to the meeting, Douglas said the root of the problem is that the county's current purchasing policy "is impossible to understand" and he prefers to get a clear policy before moving forward.
"In the meantime, no contracts have been signed with Durden and no money paid to him since the seating of the new commission in January," he said. "None of that will happen until we have a clear policy in place and know where to go with this issue."
The policy states that purchase of goods and services $20,000 and over requires a formal bid/Request for Proposal procedure. But immediately after that sentence, it is more ambiguous, stating that, "Purchases of $20,000 and over may be required to be formally bid out by requesting sealed bids or proposals."
It also states that the Purchasing Office handles all formal bids/RFPs and legal advertisements for those, and will make a final determination of whether a good or service for $20,000 or over should be exempted from the bid procedure. But the county no longer has a purchasing office, Commissioner Nancy Schulz said. The policy was originally issued in 1995, revised and adopted in 2002, and revised and adopted a second time in 2007. Immediately after stating that the Purchasing Office has authority to determine if a good or service in excess of $20,000 can be exempted from the bid process, the document states that "Any purchase which individually or in aggregate is in excess of $20,000 shall have the approval of the majority of the board."
The policy appears to contradict itself, and there is also no separate section related to contracts or multi-year contracts, Schulz said.
"I think this is a vague policy," she said.
Chairman Keith Ellis said the board is working on creating a clear policy.
"We're deliberately going at a pace that will make a great product," he said. "We're trying to do it deliberately so we do it right the first time and don't have to worry in the future about a problem coming up."
The lawn maintenance contract was last put out to bid in 2006. Durden's has held the contract for 12 years. He was not the low bidder in 2006 but was awarded the contract.
The lawn maintenance contract has been an issue of contention among board members for the past several years. Schulz and Commissioner Lanier Sims have stated they want the contract put out to bid to make sure the county is getting the best value for its money.
Durden's contract is for $98,463, not including a fuel surcharge allowed March to October if the average price of premium gasoline or diesel fuel exceeds $3.20 per gallon.
Commissioners began discussing changes to the purchasing policy at their retreat last weekend.
The draft proposal states the county would be required to solicit proposals for contracts for services $50,000 and over; and for those from $5,000 to $49,999, the guideline would be to "generally solicit proposals with the option to obtain at least three competitive written quotes for services less than $20,000."
An optional provision would allow recurring services and service contracts to be renewed up to four times annually, with RFPs reissued prior to the expiration of the last renewal period. The BOC would be able to request reissuance of proposals at any time during the contract period.
Another optional provision would allow the county manager to make a recommendation to the board of whether to request written quotes or reissuance of RFPs based on: level of satisfaction with the service being provided, whether there is a cost increase proposed, length of time since the quotes/proposals were last solicited, whether use of the RFP process could result in loss of valuable experience or historic knowledge, whether a change of providers would delay an ongoing project, whether use of the RFP process would hinder the county's ability to procure the service in a timely manner or result in inefficiency, whether the use of the RFP process would result in incompatibility with existing county infrastructure, equipment or services.
The board would still have the ability to request written quotes or a reissuance of proposals at any time during the contract period.
Schulz said she's not comfortable with that option.
"It puts a lot of power in the county manager's hands and the county manager is there based on three votes," she said. "I guess it's the same if you put it to the BOC, but at least the public would have scrutiny versus just the county manager having scrutiny ... I believe after five years the public should have the opportunity for there to be an RFP so you can identify what the market analysis is. The public is paying for it. I think that the public has the right to know."
Meanwhile, a county staff member has been tasked with verifying that contractors have valid business licenses prior to a proposal being made to the board, County Manager John Middleton said Tuesday.
Durden confirmed Tuesday to the Citizen that he did not have a business license from 2002-2006, during which time he was a contractor for Newton County. He said he did not believe he was required to have a business license because his lawn maintenance business was home-based. Durden paid the back fees owed on those years in 2007.
"There was no bad intent there, I just didn't know it," he said. "I explained it, they worked with me and I paid the five years back."
Durden did not have a valid business license when commissioners approved his contract Feb. 5. He renewed his license Monday. Durden said he mailed a check to the Department of Development Services in January, which they apparently did not receive. Sources at the department said they did not receive a check from Durden.
Durden also said he mailed a check to the department for his 2012 renewal that was never received. He said he spoke with an employee who promised to check into it and he didn't hear back so he assumed everything was OK. However, records show that Durden was issued a citation for failing to renew his license on Oct. 7, 2012, resulting in a Magistrate Court date and a $100 fine.
"When Mr. Durden came in to renew his business license for 2012 in November after being issued a citation, we informed him that (the renewal) was due on Dec. 31 for 2013," said Pamela Maxwell, supervisor of code enforcement.
Durden was also issued verbal notification of expired business licenses, Maxwell said, adding that the department, as a courtesy, calls business owners to notify them when licenses have not been renewed.
Durden said he's never been required to produce proof of a valid business license when his contract came up for approval or renewal.
"They never asked for it," he said.
He also said he believed there was a grace period for renewals until March.
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. The Dec. 31 expiration date is stated on the application/renewal form and on the license itself.