Battle over sewage starts to get a little dirty
By Sylvia Cooper| Columnist
Sunday, November 15, 2009

You might think it's amazing that some big companies are competing for something you flush down your toilet every day.

But they are, and the latest competition to manage the city's sewage treatment plant is causing a big stink.

A few months ago, the Augusta commissioners decided to rebid the contract for the management of the Messerly Wastewater Treatment plant because the current contract with Operations Management International ends Dec. 1.

When the first batch of proposals came in, only two companies had submitted something that passed muster with the procurement office. So the city went out for proposals again, and after review by Utilities, which has its own requirements, three firms made the short list. And oh, my gosh, OMI was not one of them.

OMI had not submitted proper proof of liability insurance coverage, although the application clearly stated in bold print that if any of six requirements weren't met the proposal wouldn't be considered, according to interim Utilities Department Director Drew Goins.

The three who qualified -- United Water, ESG and Severn Trent -- were further screened by a committee and submitted their final offers. ESG submitted the lowest bids for operating the plant for five years. So the Utilities Department recommended it, and the city's Engineering Services Committee approved the recommendation last week.

OMI has filed a letter of protest because it didn't make the short list. John Corsi, CH2M Hill's director of public relations, said OMI has insurance and was eliminated on a "technicality."

"They wanted to find a reason not to select us," he said. And that after "10 years of stellar performance."

Mr. Corsi said OMI's sealed bid was lower and better than ESG's best and final offer. But if that's the case and its price was lower than ESG's, which totals $5.3 million for 2010, why didn't OMI give the city that deal last year? When all accounts were reconciled, OMI was paid a half-million dollars or so more than ESG's bid for next year.

One of the big bosses will speak on OMI's behalf at Tuesday's commission meeting.

Maybe Woody Merry will be there too, shouting "OMI! Find out why! OMI! Find out why!" but I doubt it considering his recent close call with the solicitors office about showing out at public meetings.

IT DOESN'T PASS THE SMELL TEST -- AGAIN: A few years ago, then-Commissioner Richard Colclough and Jack Boatman helped sell commissioners on doing some risky utility interest-rate swaps that could have meant financial disaster if Commissioners Don Grantham and Jerry Brigham hadn't pushed to get out of the deals. Augusta was supposed to make a lot of money from a $160 million interest rate swap based on interest rates rising or staying the same over a long period. But soon after the deal was consummated, interest rates started falling.

Most commissioners admitted they voted for the swap without understanding it. Officials in Jefferson County, Ala., said the same thing after they found themselves owing billions on sewer debt. A recent restructuring of $3.2 billion kept the county, which includes Birmingham, from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Mr. Boatman was then working for Gardnyr Michael Capital Co. and donating money to commissioners' campaigns, as well as handing out the Jack Boatman Award at a neighborhood alliance's annual banquet.

DON'T YOU JUST LOVE IT? Now Mr. Colclough and Mr. Boatman are working for United Water, and Mr. Boatman was in San Antonio, where four commissioners were attending the League of Cities conference last week. Mr. Colclough might have been there, too. I'm not sure.

Corey Johnson, one of four commissioners to go to San Antonio, said he heard that Mr. Boatman was there and wanted to talk to him, but he hadn't seen him and didn't want to talk to him.

GO JOE! You've got to love Commissioner Joe Jackson. I called him Friday and asked him how he was. He said, "Confused, baffled and PO'd."

He doesn't approve of commissioners going to San Antonio when there was no money in their travel budget, and he's tired of being bombarded with calls from officials of companies that didn't make the short list. He's also been lobbied by a top official of United Water, which did make the short list.

"I'm making it my business not to meet with them," he said. "I believe that when a RFP or a RFQ goes out, whoever is submitting a bid should have no contact with commissioners."

Mr. Jackson is so entirely frustrated with the commission, the Procurement Department and the government in general, he thinks the federal court should step in and "get the mess straightened out."

JACK OUT OF THE BOX: Attorney Jack Long, son of attorney Jack Long, said he thinks it's premature to talk about running for the District 22 state Senate seat before the governor announces an election. Still he has a wistful tone.

Jack is also an attorney in Augusta, but not in daddy's office. I guess he's the independent sort. I hear he's pretty cocky, too. Well, who isn't at 27 with a law degree and plenty of smarts? He graduated from Georgia Tech in three years and got his law degree from Mercer Law School. He seems like a nice fellow, and I do believe politics is in his future, which is good because Augusta needs some young blood.

State Rep. Hardie Davis, State Court Solicitor Harold Jones and Libertarian Taylor Bryant have already announced they'll seek that Senate seat, and the moneyed crowd has already held a fundraiser for Mr. Davis. Mr. Jones also has some important supporters.

MORE POLITICAL NEWS: Former Augusta Aviation Commission member Earnest Smith says he will run for the District 122 state House seat that Mr. Davis will leave to run for the Senate. Mr. Smith, 56, is an executive consultant with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.

Anybody Got A $100,000 House Left? City Administrator Fred Russell will try again Tuesday to get commissioners to approve next year's budget, which calls for a 0.1-mill property-tax increase, which amounts to about $3 a year on a $100,000 house.

His plan also calls for $1 million in cuts to the sheriff's office, $300,000 from recreation, 15 percent cuts to nonprofit agencies and $491,000 from general-fund contingency.

Look for tempers to flare as commissioners realize their pet projects are going to be cut.

BUT CAN THE SOLICITING GOONS READ? Also at Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Joe Bowles will present his solicitation ordinance, which would prohibit anyone from coming to people's doors to sell or solicit if there is a sign in the yard saying "no soliciting." The proposal stems from complaints from residents in and around Summerville about pushy salesmen coming to their doors on the pretext of selling something while casing the place for break-ins.

Some solicitors try to sell cleaning products, which many older ladies buy because they feel threatened, Mr. Bowles said. One woman refused to buy the products and called the police.

OPINIONS ARE LIKE TAXES... A Citizens Budget Survey is online at the city's Web site, augustaga.gov, and at senior citizens centers and libraries. Here are a few of the results so far:

Which statement best reflects your position regarding the level of taxes for the current level of service?

Property: 102 said appropriate; 71 said excessive; 32 said insufficient

Sales: 115 said appropriate; 29 said excessive; 61 said insufficient

Would you support an increase in sales tax if it was required to maintain the current level of service?

146 said yes; 59 said no.

Concerning levels of funding for various departments, offices and agencies, 99 respondents said funding for the sheriff's office should be increased; 21 said it should be reduced. 106 respondents said funding for parks and recreation should be maintained; 78 said it should be reduced. 136 respondents said funding for public works should be maintained; 48 said it should be increased. 129 said funding to local nonprofit agencies should be reduced; 68 said it should be maintained; and 12 said it should be increased.

IT WASN'T ART IN HOLLAND'S HEART: During a budget workshop at the Marble Palace where advocates of nonprofit agencies that get money from the city each year make their appeals for the coming year, Commissioner Calvin Holland, obviously unhappy that the Augusta Mini Theater was not on the list of agencies to receive money from the pot the city grants to the Greater Augusta Arts Council, asked Executive Director Brenda Durant why the theater was left off this year. Ms. Durant said there was some sort of problem with the financial report the theater folks had submitted. Mr. Holland then asked Ms. Durant whether she had ever been to the theater. She said she hadn't but members of the re-granting committee had and that that was one of the first things she planned to do in the coming year. Commissioner Jerry Brigham didn't like Mr. Holland's tone or line of questioning and asked Ms. Durant whether she had visited all of the other agencies the council re-grants money to. She said she hadn't. Mr. Holland then said he hadn't said what we all thought he said.

MY NAME IS MOBY: It seems the touchiest subject in District 1 politics is demographics and whether the white population is increasing while the black population is decreasing. Bring it up, and people get the jitters. I was just wondering though whether the 500 registered voters who moved out of Gilbert Manor and Underwood Homes had reduced the black voting population.

I guess everybody remembers what happened to Dave Barbee after he sent an e-mail wherein he discussed the subject.

From the Sunday, November 15, 2009 edition of the Augusta Chronicle
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