BENTON - Scott County commissioners rejected an initial offer to settle with Bridger Construction Company on what they say was an unauthorized purchase of a new heating and air conditioning unit for the old county jail.
The jail is slated to be replaced with a new 120-prisoner facility presently under construction on the adjacent lot.
"When we asked the people of the county to approve the half-cent law enforcement sales tax, we told them that we would spend the money wisely and not waste it," said Walter Bizzell, commissioner, "and that is what we are going to do."
Attorney Jim Robison appeared on Kenny Bridger's behalf during Tuesday's county commission meeting "ready to settle."
Commissioners said any payment made by the county could later be interpreted as approval of the purchase and make them liable for the purchase process as well.
"We are very concerned at the manner in which this project was bid, the price that was bid, and question if there was even a need to replace the unit on the old jail," said Martin Priggel, presiding commissioner.
Commissioners said the purchase was made without going through the state-mandated bidding process which requires publication of the bid notice in a newspaper, bids being received and opened before the commission, and approval of the bid by the commission with the participation of the officeholder or department head originating the purchase request.
Commissioners said in this case, Bridger, who is a HVAC contractor, solicited a single bid from another HVAC contractor before installing a new HVAC unit at a slightly lower price than the other contractor bid.
After learning of the purchase, commissioners independently sought bids on the unit and installation, all three of which came in more than $2,000 less than Bridger's bid.
"We are not going to spend any Scott County tax dollars unless it is justified and done in a legal manner," said Jamie Burger, commissioner.
Sheriff Bill Ferrell said despite differing opinions from contractors on whether repairs would be effective, the unit's heat exchanger was repaired at the end of December.
Ferrell said the heat exchanger has the potential to emit lethal fumes if not operating properly. "That's apparently what went out again," said Ferrell.
Ferrell said as his primary responsibility is to provide for the safety of staff and inmates at the jail, he believed it to be his duty to "get it fixed as soon as possible for the protection of the staff and inmates and so we didn't have to move them." Ferrell estimated the cost of boarding the prisoners in another facility at $1,350 per day. "As always, I do the very best I possibly can."
There is a provision for waiving the regular bid process in emergency situations. The provision, however, requires documentation to be attached to the purchase request prior to the purchase.
"We were told it was an emergency after it was installed," said Burger. "The bid date was Aug. 9, 2001, and the installation was on Aug. 21, 2001. At no time during that twelve-day period were any of the commissioners contacted to say the air conditioner unit had failed. We feel there was no emergency."
As an alternative to settling on a discounted price, Robison proposed Bridger take the new unit out and put the old unit back, but commissioners answered that if they were to do so, they would place the county at risk of having the jail shut down by the sheriff if the unit doesn't work or fails soon after its reinstallation.
In other Scott County news, commissioners voted to hire Jim Schwaninger as Scott County's first economic developer.
"We had six very good applicants for the new position of economic developer in Scott County," said Burger. "We thank them all for their interest in wanting to help to make our county a better place to live."
"We felt very fortunate to have someone with Jim's experience and abilities willing to accept this position," said Bizzell.
Schwaninger served as director for the Sikeston Area Chamber of Commerce before retiring Jan. 31. Previously he retired as vice president of government relations for JC Penney Company on Dec. 31, 1997.
"When Scott County was awarded the REAP grant to fund this new position, we knew that we needed someone who could truly make a difference in Scott County," said Priggel. "We think that with Jim's strong desire to help the county, his previous job experiences, and with the personal contacts that he already has, Jim will be a valuable asset in getting the economic development of the county off to a good start."
Schwaninger said Scott County is "a very diverse county" and hopes to "help identify all the advantages of the county and then promote them not only to industry and businesses but also to people who would enjoy the lifestyle of living in Scott County."