Originally created 05/19/00

Commissioners unhappy with contracts



HINESVILLE, Ga. - Liberty County no longer has employees who scrape dirt roads, review engineering plans of construction projects or collect misdemeanor fines.

Those services are handled by private contractors. In the future, the county may contract out its trash service, too.

It's a trend some county commissioners oppose because they don't like how the companies are selected.

Commissioner Linda Graham said she believes hiring companies can be a good deal for taxpayers.

"The problem I have is the method that's been used," Ms. Graham said. "It makes you wonder if the deal has already been made."

Two of the latest issues questioned by Ms. Graham and other commissioners are the awarding of a contract to maintain the county's dirt roads and a contract awarded nearly five years ago to oversee state court probation.

Midway Equipment Rental took over the county's nearly 100 miles of dirt roads last week. Dwayne Phillips, the company's owner, is making it his goal to grade each of the county's roads at least once a week.

THE COUNTY DOESN'T expect to save any money with its new road contract, but Commissioners Pat Bowen and Tracy Groover - who supported the change - say residents will get better service.

But Ms. Graham and Commissioners Edna Walthour and Marion Stevens say the county is paying the contractor too much money. They say the money could have been invested in the county's employees and used to buy equipment for the road department.

The county will pay Mr. Phillips $297,000 for six months of service. The money will come from the road department's budget, which is estimated at $1 million for the fiscal year that begins in July.

Under the contract, Mr. Phillips will lease three motor graders and pay the county $13,800 a month. Ms. Stevens says allowing Mr. Phillips to lease the county's equipment makes the bidding process unfair.

The county also dropped a requirement that Mr. Phillips install driveway culverts. His price would have driven up the fees residents pay for the culverts.

"We took things out to make the contract suitable for this bidder," Ms. Stevens said.

Commission Chairman Jimmy Smith doesn't know what the county advertised, but he doesn't see anything wrong with how the bid was awarded.

"What could be more fair than advertising and taking the lowest bid?" Mr. Smith asked.

However, the county hasn't always advertised services it contracts.

In February, it contracted its engineering services to an employee who had been working as county engineer, Trent Long. Mr. Long came to the county with the proposal.

FIVE YEARS AGO, the county commission hired Peach State Services, doing business as Misdemeanor Probation Services, to handle its state court probation. The company collects fines and keeps track of community service hours of probationers.

The county's revenue from fines has increased since then from $6,000 to $35,000 a month, Mr. Bowen said. Ms. Groover says it's one of the best things the county has ever done.

"We weren't getting the money before," Ms. Groover said.

Ms. Graham, who was elected in 1998, however, says the county should have bid the contract.

"I think it's just good business sense," she said.

Beyond that, she has questions about how much money the company is making.

Ms. Graham, members of a public committee and other commissioners have been trying to get information about collections, insurance and the company's organizational structure since November. Unable to get the information, the county commission voted May 2 to audit the company.

Ms. Graham wants the information to see if this is something the county should take over. However, other commissioners just want to know how much the company is making.

"I WANT TO LET the public know what's being made at public expense," Mr. Smith said.

The county is still exploring contracting out its trash services, but Mr. Smith doesn't anticipate the county privatizing other services soon.

However, he said, "I believe there are very few things private industry can't do better and more efficient than government."

Ms. Graham hopes the county can develop a better plan for privatizing services.

"It's all in the way you do it," she said.

"I believe there are very few things private industry can't do better and more efficient than government."- Jimmy Smith, Liberty County Commission chairman