By Joel Hall
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) narrowly avoided a vote to stop all payments to CH2M Hill, the engineering firm in charge of managing all of the Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) projects for the county.
Jeff Metarko, interim director of the Transportation and Development Department, said there is an ongoing disagreement between CH2M Hill and the department about for what services the county should pay for.
Because of the dispute, the county has not rendered payment to CH2M Hill since March of this year.
"In the contract, they are supposed to manage the work of design, right of way acquisition, inspections, and whatever they contract out," said Metarko. "They've been doing that. We have a difference of opinion between managing right of way and coordinating right of way acquisitions."
District 3 Commissioner Wole Ralph questioned whether the county is overpaying CH2M Hill for its services, and made a motion to stop payments to the company until the issue is resolved.
"I am just trying to make sure that we are not over-billed and that we are getting what we have paid for," said Ralph on Tuesday night. "I am asking them to stop the payment until they get caught up."
During the meeting, Ralph contended that since 2004, CH2M Hill has been billing the county on a monthly basis for land acquisition fees associated with SPLOST projects, something not included in the original contract. He said charging the county for land acquisition costs was "disingenuous" on the part of CH2M Hill.
"We shouldn't be billed years in advance ... for work that they have yet to do," said Ralph.
CH2M Hill presently receives 4.5 percent of the Transportation and Development department budget as a fee for managing the design, land acquisition, inspections, and contract work associated with all SPLOST projects, explained Daveitta Jenkins, SPLOST project manager for CH2M Hill.
However, she contends that acquiring the land is an additional service -- one for which the firm should be compensated.
"The original contract was based off of 4.5 percent of the transportation budget and there is a statement in the contract that says to exclude the cost of land," said Jenkins. She said the contract includes multiple clauses about "additional services," which can be "negotiated at a different scope and fee."
"The first bullet is the coordination of land acquisition services, so it's clearly not in the original contract, it's in the additional services portion of the contract," said Jenkins.
"When we began work in 2004, we were asked to manage the right of way acquisition because the county clearly did not have the staff to do the work, so we took on management of the right of way acquisition services as a part of our contract, with the understanding that we would be paid the 4.5 percent also for the right of way," she said.
Commissioners Ralph and Sonna Singleton voted to stop payments to CH2M Hill, while commissioners Michael Edmondson and Virginia Gray voted to make the payments. When the tie-breaking vote fell on the shoulders of BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell, he said the matter should be held for 60 days in order to give the county's lawyers, and CH2M Hill, time to sort out differences.
He added that he would direct the county to pay CH2M Hill for the payments they had not yet received.
Bell and Gray expressed concerns that local construction firms, which CH2M Hill uses in many of the SPLOST projects, would be negatively affected by a refusal to pay CH2M Hill. Edmondson said the county needs to sit at the negotiating table with CH2M Hill before any "drastic measures" are taken.
Also during the meeting, Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner won a small victory. After months of persuasion, the BOC granted the police department an additional 25 exemptions to the county vehicle policy, in a 4-1 vote.
The vote will allow more police officers, who live outside of the county, to take vehicles home, instead of having to leave their cars at the station. Edmondson voted against the move, arguing that the county vehicle policy is an incentive for police officers "to live inside the county they protect."
Turner believes the move will go a long way toward preventing crime. "It's a tool that can help us be more effective in our duties," he said. "I think that's one less thing that we have to worry about, and we can move with some of the initiatives that we have for [the Criminal Investigation Division].
"I'm extremely happy that the commissioners gave us the additional cars," said Turner. "It really improves morale."