The county’s controversial legal spending was the elephant in the room Tuesday as a joint citizen-county committee met for a second time to discuss tightening the county’s purchasing policy.
The committee is considering amending the policy to subject professional services to the same standard as other goods and services, requiring competitive bids for services valued at more than a certain dollar amount.
The committee includes of Commissioners Levie Maddox and Nancy Schulz; County Manager Tom Garrett; Finance Director Michelle Kelly; Purchasing Coordinator Mary Ann Patterson; and local residents Tom West, a retired accountant; Ann Neuhierl, who works in sales and often supplies federal and state government agencies; and Sarah Dauby, a lawyer.
Schulz congratulated the county finance department for their hard work, but said the way the policy is written makes it “ripe for abuse.” For one, there appear to be no stated consequences for vendors who violate the code of ethics, such as a ban on bidding. Maddox suggested making the code of ethics much more prominent.
Moreover, professional services, including legal services, are exempt from the bidding process that applies to all other purchases over $2,500. The policy merely states that professional services “still require proper prior approval.”
“Just because it’s professional services, does not exclude it from going through the same…ethics procedure,” said Schulz.
Maddox expressed concern that longtime County Attorney Tommy Craig was being singled out.
“Are we attempting to change everything we do to go after one local vendor?” he asked.
According to a report presented at the meeting and compiled by West, Craig has billed the county for $769,927.08 since the beginning of the fiscal year, putting the General Fund over budget by at least 20 percent. About half of the payments to Craig were for work associated with the proposed Bear Creek reservoir, the landfill, and the lawsuit brought by William Durden, a former landscaper for the county.
According to West’s projections, the county is on track to spend $1.2 million in legal fees paid to Craig alone this fiscal year. Craig billed the county $1.1 million for the 2014 calendar year. The county also contracts outside law firms as needed.
It was also noted that the state of Georgia requires vendors to submit a tax compliance form showing they are up to date on their taxes. Craig owes several million in federal taxes and penalties, and recently paid off several hundred thousand in state taxes. Local government, including municipalities and counties, are not within the purview of the Georgia Department of Administrative Services.
“It seems to me this is an ethics issue,” said Neuhierl of the state’s tax compliance requisite. “I don’t understand what the objection might be to not follow that.”
Schulz stressed after the report on Craig's billing was distributed, that it should be examined “not because of the person, because of the process.”
"Everybody has to follow the same rules," she said of the potential changes to the purchasing policy.
• See more on this story in this Sunday’s edition of The News