By Joel Hall
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners took steps this week to ensure that more contracts for projects of the 2003 Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) go to local and minority contractors.
In addition, the BOC extended its contract for another year with CH2M Hill, the engineering and consulting firm tasked with assigning SPLOST transportation and development projects to individual contractors. The renewed contract, however, includes stipulations aimed at making sure all 2003 SPLOST projects are completed by the 2010 deadline.
By 2010, under the original agreement, CH2M Hill will receive 4.5 percent of the $200 million set aside for SPLOST transportation and development projects, as compensation for managing the project contracts. Under the new terms, the firm will not be paid in full, until all the projects have been completed.
On top of that, CH2M Hill will be required to give quarterly reports to the full board detailing whether projects are meeting their expected completion dates.
"We have to inspect what we expect and that is what we are doing," said BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell. "The holding of moneys on the final year of contract will make absolutely sure ... that we have reached the final agreement of our contract. That's our expectation and we are further monitoring by the quarterly reports."
During the Feb. 12 work session, the BOC suggested that language be written into the CH2M Hill contract to ensure that after contracts are given, the firm visits the site again to make sure that work is being given to Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs), or rather, contracting firms owned by minorities or women. On Tuesday, the BOC moved forward with the decision.
"When the SPLOST was being passed, one of the concerns was that minorities would have contracting opportunities," said Commissioner Wole Ralph. "CH2M Hill were not ensuring that minority contractors were getting the jobs. They need not only to check the quality of work, they need to check if minority contractors got the job."
"The tracking of DBE needs to be done at a higher level," said Bell. "I will be asking [the BOC] to approve a contract that is county-wide, and then I want to add a policy for virtually every contract ...
"I'm looking at some way, if possible, to give more advantages to local contractors," Bell continued. "It's a legal issue ... I may not be able to do it, but I am going to make every effort."
Bell said another problem with DBE contracts is that many of the vendors do not know how to fill out proper paper work. He said that he would request CH2M Hill to create a "minority contractor training program" to teach vendors how to properly apply for county contracts.
"We have to teach people how to use the proper equations to come out with profit margins," said Bell. "We're going to teach people how to do business with the county, instead of just exposing them to the opportunity."
As the county enters the fifth year of the 2003 SPLOST contract, concerns were raised by the board as to whether CH2M Hill was meeting its yearly benchmarks for letting contracts.
As of Wednesday, a little over $79 million has been spent on transportation and development projects, while another $5.8 million has been spent on the acquisition of land.
A Nov. 18, 2005 inter-office memo addressed from SPLOST program manager Terry Legvold to Bell, however, predicted that by this time, CH2M Hill would let $120 million worth of contracts. The memo also suggested that by the end of this year, the company would let another $60 million worth of contracts.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Wole Ralph raised concerns that CH2M Hill was not meeting their benchmarks and that the county was paying them for work that had not yet been completed.
"They've gotten the amount that they should have gotten [in payment], but they haven't done the amount of projects that they were supposed to have done," said Ralph. "We've gotten farther and farther behind to a point where we are $40 million behind. Each year, they should be reaching the performance benchmarks that they set out in the letter.
"My concern was to make sure that there is a mechanism of accountability, so we wouldn't stop paying them while there was still work to be done," Ralph continued. "We can't wait until year seven to hold them accountable."
Legvold said that the 2005 memo contained "estimations" of budgets that did not reflect what the county's Transportation and Development departments had actually set aside for projects.
"We've gotten a budget each year from the county," said Legvold. "We have actually let out contracts that equaled that budget.
"Before we do a project, we have to design and buy the right of way," Legvold continued. "The budgets are not the same as that letter two years ago." He said the schedule of some of the projects had to change to adjust to the new budgets.
Bell believes the argument about whether CH2M Hill is behind on projects is a moot point, and that paying a contracting firm a consistent yearly rate during a prolonged project is "a common business practice," given the number of factors that can delay construction.
"What I have been assured by the company and what I have been assured by the contract is, at the end of the day, we will pay them 4.5 percent," said Bell. "We can't argue about whether we are $40 million ahead or behind. If I see anything that comes close to impropriety, I will turn it over to the proper authorities."