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Bear Creek figures come to light
Sims received campaign contributions from reservoir engineering firms
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Campaign contributions from Schnabel Engineering to a Newton County commissioner who, along with the rest of the board, will consider a proposal to allow the company to carry out tens of thousands of dollars worth of additional surveys for the Bear Creek reservoir appear to undermine recent county efforts to increase transparency surrounding the project.

Earlier this week, Tommy Craig, who has come under fire from some for wearing two hats as county attorney and a private water consultant hired by the county, presented his office’s audit of the funds spent on the Bear Creek project to date, including payments to his own firm. He revealed that the county has paid $21.6 million since 1998, mostly for land acquisition.

The number very closely mirrors the one that initially was given by the county’s own finance department. However, County Chairman Keith Ellis said the county would not be providing its own report, and would likely wait and allow an external auditor to look more closely at the numbers.

Craig also told the board Tuesday that the county still needed to commission a safe yield analysis as well as aerial and sonar surveys of Lake Varner. He presented quotes from Schnabel Engineering that estimated the total cost at around $86,000 and asked commissioners to consider the proposal over the coming weeks. The issue was tabled for further study and discussion.

Schnabel, which was awarded, without competition, the engineering contract for Bear Creek in 2012, recently donated $500 to commissioner Lanier Sims’ campaign, his contribution disclosure report shows. Sims was reelected earlier this month.

Krebbs Engineering, which carried out a $240,000 master water plan study and was also awarded the contract without an open tender at Craig’s recommendation, contributed $500 as well to Sims’ reelection campaign.

Sims said the bidding process is first thing on his mind when it comes to awarding the contracts for county business.

"This process should always be put out to bid," he said.  "Then the best qualified and lowest bid should get the contract.  I have always fought for fair and equal contract bidding process.  I have fought this for four years including bidding out of the county's landscaping contract and the county's recycle contract.  With that being said I am only one of five on the board and at the end of the day it is the willow the board that will award any contracts."

Other donors included the law firm of Cook Noell Tolley & Bates in Athens where Craig’s brother in law is a partner.

"I do not know John Noell, and this was just one of several private companies that are not in Newton that sent our campaign a donation," Sims wrote in an e-mail. "Also there were citizens that were not in Newton or not in my district that also sent contributions.  We did not hide any of them as to we have nothing to hide.  This was also un solicited campaign funds."  

Campaign contribution disclosure reports for the other four commissioners and the chairman, going back several years, did not appear to show donations from companies involved in Bear Creek.

Sims is not required by law to recuse himself from votes involving campaign donors.

"I don't see a conflict of interest as long as the right procedures are followed as I answered in question one," Sims continued.  "These are private companies that sent my campaign a contribution.  These were un solicited from our end.  We followed normal procedure on our end and filed all the proper documentation of the campaign funds.  There was nothing to hide on our end.  If there was something to hide why would my campaign disclose this information.  And last I don't think a small contribution gets you any favors to the tune of millions of dollars of engineering.  I don't make decisions like that nor have I in my four years, nor have I had special interests groups that I try to get favors for. "

The donations will likely do little to alter the impression among Bear Creek critics that Craig and his team of consultants hold undue sway over the county. Local resident Wesley Dowdy used the citizen comments period to register his skepticism of safe yield analysis, questioning why it was not included in the work completed by Krebs Engineering for the Master Water Plan, and calling on commissioners to hold an open bid for the new contract.

Others commended Craig’s efforts, with Commissioner Nancy Schulz lauding the “progress” made toward greater transparency two weeks after she publicly registered her frustration over failing to receive the Krebs report, which was finished in March.

According to Craig’s office’s audit, a total of $17,439,083.39 was spent on Bear Creek for land acquisition, including appraisals, surveys and mapping, title insurance and condemnation costs. Another $1,299,971.80 went towards engineering and environmental consulting, and $1,146,234.82 for legal fees. Miscellaneous and bond costs accounted for the remaining sums for a grant total of $21,682,176.49.