Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

County mayor, committee members go at it in meeting

The tension was thick and accusations were flying during last week’s meeting of the County-Owned Property Committee.
Before the 75-minute meeting was over, one committee member had accused Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge of not doing his job while another made claims that department heads are referring to Eldridge as Santa Claus because he is “handing out” money.
Eldridge made his own accusations at the meeting, saying the committee was attempting to “fast track” discussions in a deliberate effort to “railroad” him.
At the June 19 meeting, members of the County-Owned Property Committee voted unanimously to stop all construction work at the downtown courthouse.
Renovations to the second floor of the courthouse have been under way since November 2012. Leaders voted to renovate the building to include office space for the newly hired county attorney, move the mayor’s offices from the county office building across the street and revamp the former courtroom where the county commission usually meets.
“Early last week I was advised a problem may exist with our renovations at the courthouse,” said Mark Ferguson, committee chair. “We started construction before we got approval from the state fire marshal’s office.”
According to Eldridge, it was discovered plans had not been submitted to the state for review by the project architect when county Purchasing Director Willie Shrewsberry requested an inspection of the building last month.
“That’s when we knew the fire marshal had not approved the plans,” Eldridge said. “There was a miscommunication (with the architect).”
Two weeks after the discovery, Eldridge said the county submitted the information to Nashville.
On May 21, the state fire marshal’s office sent a six-page memo to the county requesting additional information.
“Our response for the additional information was submitted today (June 19),” Eldridge said.
On June 17, Ferguson accompanied State Fire Marshal Rick Talley on a walkthrough of the construction site.
Talley requested a voluntary stoppage in work until the situation is cleared up and plans corrected.
The fire marshal’s order is not, however, the reason committee members voted to halt construction at the courthouse.
“Just here a couple of meetings ago you gave us an estimate of where we was at with the renovations. You told us at that time ­— in April — you was below budget and pretty much on schedule,” Ferguson said to Eldridge. “Here we are in June and we’ve got a $255,000 budget and we’re asking to increase that to $463,000. I have real reservations as a representative of the taxpayers of Washington County in voting to increase this at this time without looking at the scope of this project.”
Ferguson balked at a bid of $155,000 for painting and renovation of the exterior of the building. The original amount budgeted for the work was $37,000; however, only one bid came in — at $118,000 more than leaders had planned to spend for the work.
“We’re missing things by 200 and 300 percent on costs. We can’t operate like that,” Ferguson said. “Folks, we’re dealing with taxpayer money here. We need to be a little bit tighter with this money.
“I said from the beginning, when we opened this (can) of worms over here that we’d spend $1 million before we got done. And we’re headed in that direction.”
Ferguson promptly made a motion to stop all renovation work at the courthouse and not approve any more money for the project “until we can review the total scope of work and cost and what’s left to spend.”
Commissioner Alpha Bridger seconded the motion.
“If we could slow down a little, I could explain things,” Eldridge said before voting commenced. “But I know we’re on a fast track here to railroad me.”
Eldridge explained that the $463,000 is not necessarily what it will cost to do the renovation work, but it is what he is requesting be borrowed as part of a $9.2 million loan the county is considering taking out to complete a laundry list of capital projects.
“The $155,000 bid (for exterior work) was the only bid we got. It was rejected,” Eldridge said. “There’s no way we’re going to do this work based on a single bid. The whole project is going to be rebid.”
Ferguson questioned the mayor about why the committee was unaware of plans to rebid the project.
“I’ve been saying it for three years, mayor — no communications, period,” Ferguson quipped.
Eldridge referred to an email he said he sent Ferguson last week requesting he be allowed to talk to the committee at the June 19 meeting regarding two issues — one related to the exterior painting of the downtown courthouse and one related to proposed renovations of the District Attorney’s Office in the George P. Jaynes Justice Center.
He also said some project details had been discussed at a Budget Committee meeting the previous week, one Ferguson had attended.
“Well, when you get some firm bids, then we’ll look at it, but let’s not borrow the money without getting the bids first,” Ferguson responded.
Eldridge encouraged the committee to include funding for the courthouse in with the multimillion dollar loan being considered to keep costs at a minimum.
“There’s a lot of advantages to combining it into a single debt offering. This debt offering is going to cost us $80,000 — total — in fees,” Eldridge said. “To turn around and do it (separately for the courthouse project) two, three months down the road, we’re going to incur a lot of expense.”
Committee members aired concern about borrowing the $9.2 million when the county already owes approximately $147 million.
The money will be used for a variety of capital projects, including a new asphalt plant, the creation of a county archive and renovations at several area schools.
“Some of these county officials are calling you Santa Claus,” Ferguson said. “They say you are going around handing out money.”
Ferguson said he has talked to several department heads who said Eldridge came to them offering to add more to the debt offering for just about anything they wanted.
Eldridge requested the names of officials making such claims, but Ferguson would only say, “you know who you’ve talked to.”
Eldridge said commissioners have the authority to strike the funding for any of the proposed capital projects from the loan package before setting the maximum amount they want to borrow.
“Don’t think I’m trying to pull something on you,” Eldridge said, pointing out he has worked it so the commission will have the ultimate power in what gets done with the funding. “What I proposed is all of this money go to the Capital Projects Fund. Then the commission has to vote again to spend it. You’ve got to approve every dime before you can move it to an expenditure line item.”
Before the meeting ended, committee member Alpha Bridger adamantly insisted Eldridge was not doing enough to get more bids for the work at the downtown courthouse.
Noting that people are “hungry for work,” Bridger said the county should be receiving several bids from contractors for the project. Eldridge argued only three local companies are qualified to do the exterior work on the historic building.
“I’ll get somebody to bid if you don’t want to do it,” she snapped at Eldridge. “We are not totally stupid, you know.”
When Eldridge asked Bridger if he had done something to make her feel like he thought the commissioners were stupid, she laughed and said, “Yeah, probably.”
The response garnered an exasperated sigh from fellow committee member George “Skip” Oldham.
“I’m not trying to be controversial, Skip. This is just frustrating,” Bridger said. “I don’t want to feel like I don’t have a clue about what we’re talking about.”
The full county commission was expected to discuss the debt offering at its night meeting on June 24.