The frustration was palpable at Tuesday's Board of Commissioners' meeting after interim County Manager Harry Owens revealed that Newton County has exceeded its contract with the operator of 11 convenience centers by nearly $50,000 for the past two years.
The contract, which has not been bid out since 2001, is held by Junior Hilliard for the amount "not to exceed" $412,331. In 2013 and 2014, the county paid Hilliard $461,986 and $460,907 respectively, Owens said.
“My mission is to inform the board that those numbers are increasing and they are above contract,” Owens said.
Commissioner J.C. Henderson, who has fought efforts to impose user fees at the convenience centers, responded by asking Owens when he expected his time as county manager to come to an end. He then dismissed the billing as a matter of “house cleaning” and scolded Owens for not coming to him first, in private, as the official liaison to the convenience centers.
Henderson said he was not being shown the respect owed to a commissioner.
Commissioner Lanier Sims, apparently angered by Henderson’s comments, left his commissioner’s seat in protest to join the public in the pews.
Commissioner Nancy Schulz expressed concern that the board was unaware that payments had been made in excess of the contract, noting that the county just finished a long and brutal budget process that resulted in an unpopular tax hike.
“That is a contract that is in place and it has a ‘not to exceed’ price,” she said. “If we can’t adhere to our purchasing policy…we’re going to be back in the same place come June of 2016.”
The audience applauded her warning.
Hilliard then took to the podium to explain the discrepancies, telling the commissioners that the former county manager, John Middletown, who passed away in February, had approved the additional expenses.
He said that Middletown had preferred to resolve such matters “behind the door of the office.”
In a prepared statement, Hilliard wrote that “over the years the dollar value of the contract has not been updated to accurately reflect the addition or deletion of holidays” including the additional strain of the Christmas rush.
The contract also does not take into account changes in operating hours due to inclement weather or additional attendants, he wrote.
“I expect any discrepancies can be explained by the aforementioned variables,” the statement concluded.
Several members of the board also mentioned that they had recieved complaints that the bins at the recycling centers were full and the centers were closed during official hours.
The board eventually voted to table decisions on the convenience centers, including a ban on yard waste and tires, until September 1.
Speaking during citizen comments, Sims apologized for storming off, but made his ire known.
“Why I’m upset is, he [Owens] is up here being transparent, not just to this board but to every tax paying citizen in this county, and for him to have a minor tongue lashing, I think that’s absurd,” Sims said of Henderson's comments. “This board should treat employees a little bit better when they’re doing their job.”
Reverend David Johnson, also speaking during citizen comments, commended Owens for making the information public, and accused the board of attempting to find a scapegoat for its own problems.
Tonya Bechtler, chair of the Yellow River Water Trail, appealed to the board not to make any decisions regarding the landfill or recycling centers until the solid waste citizens panel has submitted its final report.
Henderson, for his part, defended his handling of the situation, saying if Owens had come to him as liaison to the convenience centers, there was a “possibility that we don’t even have to bring it before the board.”
In addition to operating the convenience centers, Hilliard is also Henderson’s appointee to the purchasing policy committee, which has sought to tighten oversight of county spending and contracts. The committee was supposed to present its findings this week, but, according to committee chair Commissioner Levie Maddox, “more meetings and conversations are ahead before a final version is to be considered.”
“There is currently no time table or deadline on this review,” Maddox wrote in an email to The News last week.
Check back at www.covnews.com for video of this and other discussions at Tuesday's Board of Commissioners meeting