The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 30, 2014

County water board wants closer look at vendor bills

By Karen Middleton
For The News Courier

— The Limestone County Water and Sewer Authority will meet in a work session within the next 60 days to review billing practices of engineers, accountants and attorneys with which it does business.

The issue arose at Thursday’s meeting when authority board member Johnny Hatchett motioned that itemized bills from all three vendors supplying those services be included in the board meeting packet each month before the board votes to pay them.

Board Chairman Jim Moffatt agreed, saying he would also like to understand how money is being spent.

Presently, authority manager Byron Cook sees the itemized bills and board members get a lump-sum request for payment in their meeting packet. Invoices in Thursday’s board packet were from engineering firm Hethcoat & Davis of Brentwood, Tenn., who billed $10,744, $9,601, and $14,087 for numerous projects; Christopher Professional Enterprises, who billed $134,134.87; Ray Construction for $22,766; and Apel Machine & Supply for $151,360.

Before approving payment Hatchett asked in the discussion portion of the measure: “Why don’t we approve rates of contractors? I suggest we see the bills — for engineers, for legal services and for accountants — that say what they did and how many hours they used and at what rates. We’re only seeing the lump sums from the accountant and we need to see those (the bills). I motion they come to us for approval before Byron pays them. I want to know what we’re paying for.”

“Are you asking that those bills be included in the board packet?” asked Moffatt.

“Yes, sir, I am,” said Hatchett.

“I second that,” said Smith. “When I saw those today I was shocked.”

The motion passed but Smith said he wanted more discussion on the issue of billing by Hethcoat & Davis.

“Has Byron requested hours when he discusses (with a contractor) what has to be done?” asked Smith.

Cook assured the board he does discuss hours with the firm when requesting services.

“I see you had 15 hour of meetings with Huntsville (concerning sewer line connections between the two utilities on the Holladay Road project),” said Smith. “There has to be some pretty important business getting done.”

“We already have a contract with Huntsville on sewer discharge,” said Hatchett. “What are all these ancillary charges?”

Hethcoat, who was at the meeting, explained that during contract discussions with Huntsville the city proposed connecting at a certain subdivision, but when it came to confirming the connection, Huntsville didn’t have an adequate point to connect.

Hethcoat said it took four different meetings with Huntsville at which the city proposed four different connection sites, but all were ruled out because of issues of accessibility and capacity.

“At the fourth meeting we said, ‘please show where we can tie on, the capacity, and relocation if necessary, that is not part of the original scope of the design,’” said Hethcoat. “We had proposed an agreement and a couple of times we haven’t gotten feedback from them.”

Moffatt said the board “needs to get a handle on the services of outside contractors. Our job is to make sure that the people of our county are getting the services we pay for.”

Hatchett said he didn’t bring up the issue to “fuss at the engineers.”

“I’m wanting some control,” said Hatchett. “We are asking our customers for a 5-percent increase a year and our customers have got to understand the reasons. ... I want a special session. We don’t understand the implications of what we are spending.”

Moffatt promised he would come up with a date for a “planning session” in the next 60 days.

After the meeting, Smith said the authority had spent $1 million on engineering services in the last fiscal year.

“We need to get a better understanding of this and get it under control,” said Smith.