William Durden keeps photos of the flower beds his small company tended for Newton County scrapbooked alongside recognition his landscaping company has received since 2001.
In 2001, Newton gave Durden’s Lawn Maintenance a contract for the county’s lawn care. The county had just fired a different company for doing an inadequate job, according to Durden, and the purchasing manager noted that Durden’s company had done excellent work on county projects while filling in. Durden proudly lingers over photos of lush gold day lilies bloom he planted behind the historic courthouse.
Durden said that last year, Newton County officials decided the area would be maintained by other workers as a cost-saving measure. The lily beds are now a patch choked with weeds that spill over onto the walkway. Durden worries that Covington residents will think he is responsible for the lax work.
“When the heat index was 110 or whether it was winter and 25 degrees, I would be alongside my three workers pulling weeks, planting sod, mowing,” Durden said, clearly distraught. “I’m not perfect. To be honest, there were times in this recession when I just couldn’t put my hands on the money for a business license fee by the deadline date and pay my workers their $11 an hour paychecks on time. But the quality of my work was always respected. And when the county was in a budget shortfall, I was asked to take care of one site for free and I did. Now, I feel like my reputation is being ruined.”
Durden’s $98,463 five-year contract was renewed Feb. 5 with a 3 to 2 vote by counter commissioners, but everything changed in a special meeting Tuesday. That evening, commissioners voted unanimously voted not to renew Durden’s contract and to call for bids instead. Durden was operating without a valid business license when his contract was renewed this year. He had been tardy in renewing his license some years. He did not have a license between 2002 and 2006. And Chairman Keith Ellis expressed concerns about fluctuations in lawn care costs.
Durden gave the News receipts showing that he later paid all the late penalties charged to him as well as paid the annual business license fees he owed for 2002 to 2006. He also pointed to a paragraph in county guidelines for business licenses that state that payment is due Dec. 31, but no penalty is assessed until March. Durden said he regarded that as a grace period. He also gave the News documents that showed he had been asked by the county to add on additional projects with additional costs some years.
“Between 2002 and 2006, I was working out of my home and I didn’t think I needed a business license at that point,” Durden said.
The mountain of documentation—including work orders, invoices and memos from county officials—makes it clear how complex the county lawn care contract is. Currently, Durden estimates he is caring for about 54 acres. Some years, he handled approximately 20 different sites. But recession forced the county to cut back in some years going from weekly to monthly or bimonthly weed-eating or fertilizing of some sites, eliminating weed control for some grassy areas but maintaining others. In 2010, Durden wrote a letter to the commissioners offering to cut percent from his existing contract because the county budget was so tight.
The bidding process can also confusing, as Commissioner JC Henderson noted at a recent meeting. Bids are put out for some contracts but not others. The bids are evaluated with a point system so that the low bid is not always the one chosen. On Jan. 22, 2006, G&G Landscape Management owner Gary Campbell, who had offered a lower bid than Durden, filed a formal complaint with commissioners claiming there was a mathematical mistake in weighting the points. The county’s Purchasing Department rejected his complaint. John Middleton, who was the county’s administrative officer at the time, rejected Campbell’s appeal in Feb. 2007.
“At the time, I considered legal action but decided not to sue,” Campbell told the News yesterday. He currently handles the city of Covington’s lawn care which he says covers four sites totaling 12 to 15 acres.
Durden has pay stubs from the county for work he did in Jan. and Feb. The contract he showed the News indicates that the county is required to give him written notice if his contract will be terminated.
Attempts to reach Ellis by email and phone Saturday were unsuccessful. County Attorney Tommy Craig deferred questions about Durden’s work to Middleton, who was not reachable on Saturday.
“I know a letter went out from Mr. Middleton’s office to Mr. Durden on Friday or it will be going out Monday and that will clarify Mr. Durden’s status,” Craig said.
He dismissed some of Durden’s assertions as misinformation but declined to discuss specifics because “this could go to litigation.” He added that there was some basis for an argument that Durden was “in default in terms of his contract.”