County seeks change in bidding laws
by Kellen Moore
Frustrated by seeing local contractors losing bids to out-of-county companies, Watauga County commissioners decided Tuesday to try to do something about it.
State statute requires local governments to use a competitive bidding process and accept the lowest bid on most construction and repair work, as well as equipment purchases.
As a result, Watauga County commissioners have on several occasions had to deny local providers and contract with out-of-county companies that offered lower costs for their products or services.
The situation presented itself again Tuesday as commissioners considered a contract for the construction of a data room in the Watauga County Cooperative Extension Building.
Houck Contracting of Hickory presented the lowest bid for the project at $18,630, beating three other Boone-based construction companies. The board voted 4-1 to accept the contract with an additional $980 cost for a ceiling-mounted air conditioning unit.
Commissioners David Blust and Perry Yates in particular voiced frustrations about the law, saying they would rather grant contracts to local companies that employ local workers, buy local products and contribute to the community.
“It bothers me every time that we do this,” Blust said. “I’d like to see them tweak this law where maybe … we have some leeway to factor in these things.”
Yates, who owns New River Building Supply, also suggested an open forum with local contractors to notify them that they are often getting beat in public contracts and explain why.
“It’s just not right,” Yates said. “We need to look after our people in the county that are hurting. I don’t think we’re being good stewards to our county people.”
Commissioner Billy Kennedy pointed out that sometimes the lowest bidder cannot complete the contract or finish in time.
Former Gov. Bev Perdue signed an Executive Order in 2010 that allowed state agencies to give North Carolina-based businesses an advantage in contracts if their bids were within 5 percent or $10,000 of the lowest bid, whichever was less.
“If the governor’s got the right to negotiate a little bit, we should, too,” Blust said.
The board directed County Manager Deron Geouque to draft a resolution asking the General Assembly to grant counties the authority to deviate from the general statute in similar cases. The resolution may be considered at a later meeting and forwarded to Sen. Dan Soucek and Rep. Jonathan Jordan.
Geouque also said he would contact the N.C. Association of County Commissioners to see if that group would be willing to take up the issue.
Raising the roof
Commissioners also held a rare quasi-judicial hearing Tuesday to consider granting a height variance for the Middle Fork Falls Resort, a proposed indoor waterpark, hotel and commercial center to be located next to Tweetsie Railroad.
Developer Steve Moberg requested that he be allowed to construct a building 58 feet tall, 18 feet above the maximum height allowed in the High Impact Land Use Ordinance.
One of the purposes of the height restriction is to ensure adequate fire protection.
Joe Furman, planning and inspections director, noted that the building will have sprinklers and that both the Blowing Rock and Boone Fire Departments have ladder trucks capable of reaching beyond the 58 feet.
After approving several findings of fact, the board voted unanimously to grant the variance, allowing the project to move forward with planning.
Such a hearing has not occurred in at least two years.
The board also agreed to two contracts with the N.C. Department of Transportation, which intends to provide funding for two greenway projects in Watauga County.
The Middle Fork Greenway, which will be constructed near Tweetsie Railroad and Mystery Hill, will run under U.S. 321. It is expected to cost $375,000, with money to be paid from state and federal funds.
The South Fork Greenway will run under U.S. 421 to connect Brookshire Park’s existing loop to the other side of the highway and indirectly, the Boone Greenway. A total of $600,000 will be provided for that project.
Blust raised concerns with a provision that stated that Watauga County would be responsible for any cost overruns and was the sole nay vote on approval of the contracts.
The board accepted several committee nominations from new commissioners. Yates nominated Tommy Critcher for the Boone Rural Fire Protection Service District board and Todd Castle for the Watauga County Planning Board.
Commissioner John Welch nominated Lee Stroupe for the fire protection board.
The board unanimously approved those nominations, with additional names to come at a future meeting.
The board also met in closed session to discuss attorney-client matters and personnel. After closed session, the board approved the hire of April Pope as county veterans’ service officer.
— Set a pre-budget retreat for noon to 6 p.m. Feb. 22 and 9 a.m. to noon Feb. 23.
— Approved an easement for Frontier Natural Gas to locate a natural gas line on Watauga High School property.
— Approved two routine budget amendments.
— Received an update on tax collections and refunds.
— Approved participation in a grant program for the Emergency Management office.
— Approved a grant application for the Board of Elections to seek a $5,768 reimbursement for expenses associated with the 2012 second primary and general election.
— Approved an out-of-state travel request for Sheriff Len Hagaman to attend a conference.
— Set a public hearing for Feb. 19 to take comments on amending the existing Watershed Protection Ordinance to cover an area intended for Boone’s new water intake site.