Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Brunswick approves disaster debris contract potentially worth millions. It could financially benefit one commissioner

Brunswick County has entered into a pre-positioned contract with Southern Disaster Recovery, a company where one of its sitting Commissioners currently works. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Brunswick County has entered into a pre-positioned contract with Southern Disaster Recovery, a company where one of its sitting Commissioners currently works. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Earlier this month, Brunswick County approved entering into a pre-positioned, multi-jurisdictional debris management contract with Southern Disaster Recovery. The company beat out five competing bidders.

A sitting commissioner, Randy Thompson, currently works with Southern Disaster Recovery as a contractor. Though the county’s new contract is preemptive, if activated in the event of a natural disaster, it could be worth millions.

Related: Why is Leland looking to give its utilities — a $66 million value — to H2GO?

Commissioner Thompson recused himself from voting on the item at an Aug. 5 board meeting. Asked by fellow Commissioner Marty Cooke if he had a pecuniary (i.e. financial) interest with the company, Thompson said at the meeting: “No. I would not receive, contract-wise, I would not receive anything from approval for this. If activation, then the possibility of compensation does exist.”

In essence, the contract puts Southern Disaster Recovery on stand-by; thus, the contract itself won’t financially benefit Thompson, but any work done by the company for the county as a result of the contract would benefit Thompson.

During the meeting, Commissioner Mike Forte described the vote as a “no-brainer” because of its cost-saving potential; all four commissioners approved the decision to award Southern Disaster Recovery the primary disaster debris management contract.

Listen to an exchange between Commissioner Forte and Cooke about the approval:

Money-saver

At the meeting, Brunswick County Manager Ann Hardy described the Federal Emergency Management Agency-proscribed bid process as elaborate.

“The county followed the statute on Vice-Chairman Thompson not participating or influencing the vote, and he was excused by motion and vote of Board of Commissioners,” Hardy wrote in a statement.

In North Carolina, several state statutes govern contract procurement efforts that result in a conflict of interest of a public-serving official. With some exceptions, public officials can be found guilty of a Class 1 Misdemeanor for voting, deliberating the vote, or attempting to influence those involved in administering contracts that would benefit them.

Commissioner Thompson did not vote on the contract or discuss the item in open session after recusing himself.

“This is something that is done with county staff, legal, finance, the commissioners are not involved in the evaluation process,” Thompson said in an interview. “This was a money-saving decision for the county if we were to have an event occur.”

Southern Disaster Recovery provided the lowest overall prices, according to county officials. According to the county, Southern Disaster Recovery’s bid was about 15 percent less than the next-lowest bidder, Custom Tree Care.

If federal guidelines are followed, local disaster recovery activity expenses like debris cleanup can be eligible for full reimbursement. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pledges 75% reimbursement and the state of North Carolina has typically matched to cover the remaining 25%.

“To me, if we are impacted, it’s going to save the county money upfront. It’s going to save the federal government money upfront on the reimbursement, and it will also save the state of North Carolina money upfront on reimbursement,” Thompson said.

Commissioner Randy Thompson specializes in debris recovery as a consultant for Southern Disaster Recovery. On Aug. 5, Brunswick County Commissioners (with Thompson recused) unanimously approved a pre-positioned primary debris removal contract with Southern Disaster Recovery. (Port City Daily photo)
Commissioner Randy Thompson specializes in debris recovery as a consultant for Southern Disaster Recovery. On Aug. 5, Brunswick County Commissioners (with Thompson recused) unanimously approved a pre-positioned primary debris removal contract with Southern Disaster Recovery. (Port City Daily photo)

Commissioners say no conflict of interest

At the meeting, Commissioner Forte and Cooke acknowledged the potential benefit Thompson’s connection to the company could offer the county in the time of a disaster.

In an interview, Thompson also confirmed this potential. He cited his intention to make sure the company’s project manager could be introduced to and knew representatives of the county so that the team could “hit the ground running” to begin the lengthy process of debris cleanup.

Thompson said he did not perform any direct work on the bid on behalf of Southern Disaster Recovery, where he has contracted as a consultant for over three years. “We reviewed it, saw that it was open, and wrote up a bid and turned a bid in,” he said. “I was not directly involved with the county as far as any part of the bid process, no.”

Ten years ago, Thompson served as a department head in Brunswick County as its Emergency Services Director. With 32 years of government experience, Thompson collects a pension.

Local elected officials in North Carolina do not earn full-time salaries for their part-time roles. Therefore, many elected officials maintain part-time or full-time jobs on the side in the private sector.

As a debris removal consultant, Southern Disaster Recovery is Thompson’s only contract at the time, he said, and his primary source of income.

“I think the bottom line here is, if something happens, that people have jobs and still perform in government,” Thompson said. “We have followed state procurement guidelines to a T.”

Asked what he would say to anyone who may raise concerns about the conflict of interest this arrangement presents, Thompson said: “By the county following all state procurement laws and following FEMA federal guidelines, there should not be any questions at all anyway.”

Chairman Frank Williams provided the following statement after being asked if he had any concerns: “Vice Chairman Thompson transparently disclosed his involvement in this matter, the board unanimously voted to recuse him from participation, and the board selected the contractor that our staff believes will provide the best value for our taxpayers if and when the debris contract is activated,” Williams wrote in a statement.

Commissioner Cooke cited previous Brunswick County Chairman Phil Norris as another elected official and businessman whose work sometimes intersected with county decisions.

“We have had commissioners who have been involved in other businesses, such as former Chairman Phil Norris who is an engineer.  In each case they, like Commissioner Thompson, recused themselves and both the board and staff looked at the matter objectively.  We didn’t look upon this as benefiting or not benefitting an individual, but at the project itself,” Cooke wrote in a statement.

In December 2014, the county acquired 35 acres in Holden Beach for $3.5 million. Chairman Norris, according to WECT, previously had an ownership stake in the company that owned the land prior to the county’s purchase. After a brief State Bureau of Investigation probe, the county and Norris were cleared of any wrongdoing.

Commissioners Forte and Pat Sykes did not respond to a request to comment.

CrowderGulf out

Brunswick County’s multi-jurisdictional contract with CrowderGulf, according to the contract, began June 2016 and would have expired in 2021. Hurricane Florence debris removal in unincorporated areas cost the county an estimated $5.5 million — this does not include CrowderGulf’s services in multiple municipalities that chose to activate the contract after the storm.

Brunswick County’s Hurricane Florence after-action report identified the potential to partner with a new debris management company, citing the lengthy debris removal process.

Municipalities are not automatically locked into the Southern Disaster Recovery contract. As a multi-jurisdictional contract, Brunswick County municipalities have the option to opt-in and activate if they so choose.

But the option to opt-in allows the county’s municipalities a lower fee than they might otherwise be able to negotiate on their own.

“It’s money savings all around,” Thompson said. “And its the knowledge of the staff to understand the FEMA guidelines that puts them in a position to where everybody can benefit from it — regardless of whose company is chosen.”

View the full bid tabulation on all six debris removal management companies who submitted bids to Brunswick County below. Southern Disaster Recovery was selected as the county’s primary pre-positioned contractor; Ceres Environmental Services, Inc. was selected as its secondary contractor:

2019_DD_Management_Bid_Tab_072619 (1) by Johanna Ferebee on Scribd


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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