Hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of dollars have been flowing out of the enterprise Water Fund to County Attorney Tommy Craig with little or no oversight by elected officials, an investigation by The News found.
The Water Fund accounted for more than $235,000 of the $1.1 million the county paid William Thomas Craig LLC out of six different funds for the 2014 calendar year.
Two of the largest payments—one for $20,817.79 and another for $34,959.76, both for work related to the proposed Bear Creek reservoir and issued October 27 and November 14 respectively—netted Craig’s firm $55,777.55 for one month of work.
The payouts were approved by County Manager Tom Garrett in the absence of any budget for Bear Creek permitting set by the Board of Commissioners.
Garrett said he followed protocol by reviewing the invoices to make sure that the bills reflected work that had been completed, and approved them after review.
County Chairman Keith Ellis told The News he does not review detailed invoices for payments out of the Water Fund.
“Currently I do not see that breakdown of invoices; they go through the finance department and from there they go to the county manager’s office for approval,” Ellis said. “The checks would have my signature on them, but I would not have seen those invoices.”
Garrett confirmed that he has been responsible for reviewing invoices since his appointment in September.
The apparently unchecked flow of money from the Water Fund — the second largest source of county income for Craig’s firm after the General Fund — underscores citizen concerns over budgeting and accountability with regards to the county’s legal costs. In addition to the Water Fund and General Fund, Craig’s firm is also paid out of the enterprise Solid Waste Fund, the Nelson Heights Community Center fund, the 2005 SPLOST fund and the 2011 SPLOST fund.
The Water Fund may not be the only account affected by the county’s lax oversight. According to Commissioner Nancy Schulz, the board did not review the check registry for nearly two years, beginning in January 2013 when new financial software was supposed to be introduced.
The check registry approval was made available to commissioners in December, 2014, at Schulz’ request, but tabled until January, when the BOC approved it. Schulz wrote in an e-mail that at the time, she questioned Garrett regarding the more than $50,000 that had been paid to Craig’s firm for the month of October, and requested the county manager make recommendations for staying within budget and prepare a detailed spreadsheet correlating expenditures with the litigation report, which he did.
“I have been asking for this information for six years and it is the first time the BOC has received a report that is thorough and understandable,” Schulz wrote. “Since November 2011 when the County Manager position was created, the waters have been muddied. It all goes back to organization and structure.”
“Someone needs to be accountable,” she wrote. “This was never clarified in 2011, so my assumption is that it is still ultimately the responsibility of the Chair.”
Ellis could not be reached for further comment.
Commissioner J.C. Henderson said large payouts to Craig are not uncommon, but would not comment on any specific payments without seeing the invoices. Commissioner John Douglas did not return calls or an e-mailed request for comment.
Commissioners Lanier Sims and Levie Maddox, who were on the budget subcommittee that reviewed the enterprise funds last spring, also did not respond to requests for comment.
Craig did not return calls for comment or respond to attempts to contact him in person.
In total, the county paid Craig at least $235,676.24 out of the Water Fund, which is still servicing debts for bonds issued in 2004 and 2010. The Water Fund pays for existing infrastructure, such as the Cornish Creek and Williams Street water treatment plants, but also the county’s ongoing efforts to secure a 404 dredge and fill permit for Bear Creek. The Army Corp of Engineers is currently reviewing the application after the county amended it last year to change the location of the dam.
Since 1996, the county has spent over $21 million on Bear Creek out of the Water Fund, including land purchases, surveying, environmental impact studies, engineering and legal costs. Craig has claimed that the majority of the money was spent on land acquisition.
A review of county records and the general ledger statement for Bear Creek shows that at least $7 million has been paid out directly to Craig or his firm since 1998. Large transfers to his escrow account appear to support land purchases made concurrently, but the county’s documentation of those transactions is scarce. Many of the purchases were made over ten years ago and the county is not obligated by law to keep most records more than five years. The News recently filed an open records request for parcel numbers, acreage and purchase price of land bought for Bear Creek and is awaiting the results.
The permitting process for a large reservoir can easily take years, but some citizens are becoming increasingly concerned about the project’s ever mounting costs and lack of progress or transparency.
Craig has acted as project manager and consultant throughout the process, recommending specific firms carry out contract work and then advising the board in his capacity as county attorney that these contracts did not require an open tender. Most recently, the county paid Krebs Engineering over $200,000 for a draft Master Water Plan that was never completed and was found to have serious flaws in an independent review commissioned by the Water and Sewerage Authority.
The authority, the county’s largest wholesale water customer, has estimated that wholesale water rates would likely double within the first five years of Bear Creek construction, a cost that would have to be passed on to ratepayers.