Richland County Council on Tuesday chose not to hire a private consulting group asking for nearly $1 million for five months of flood relief work in the hard-hit, slow-recovering Lower Richland area.
After a lengthy closed-door discussion, County Council members decided not to vote to approve a proposed contract, a copy of which was obtained by The State newspaper, which published details online Tuesday afternoon. The contract would have paid up to $988,800 to the West Columbia-based AT Consulting Group LLC.
The contract was an unsolicited proposal to the county, Council Chairman Torrey Rush said. That means there were no competitive bidders. Details of the contract proposal were not publicized by the county.
The contract would have paid as much as $194,000 for 22 weeks of work done by an executive director of the newly established Lower Richland Operations Center. As much as $928,800 would have been paid to a total of 17 personnel to distributing disaster relief items and coordinate services with state and federal agencies, according to the proposed contract.
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AT Consulting is headed by former Fort Jackson commanding officer retired Army Maj. Gen. Abraham Turner. Councilman Kelvin Washington, who represents District 10 in Lower Richland, said he recommended Turner’s group to the county administrator because of Turner’s military expertise and disaster experience.
“I felt it was ill-conceived to award a contract for $1 million to an entity that has absolutely no financial accountability to the county,” Councilman Seth Rose said after Tuesday’s meeting. “They could take the money and do whatever they want with it. ... I want to make sure that the taxpayer moneys go to the citizens that need it and not to someone’s wallet.”
The county and its leaders are dealing with unprecedented situations and decisions in the aftermath of the floods, Rush said, “but I think we’re trying to make decisions that are in the best interest of our citizens.”
“There’s a lot of citizens throughout this county that have various issues, and I think that there’s not necessarily a blueprint as to what you would exactly do,” Rush said. “Just like anything else that comes before us, we evaluate it.”
According to the proposed contract, the consulting group’s duties would have been to “coordinate, store and deliver disaster relief goods and resources (minus monetary contributions)” and to “coordinate with state and federal agencies to facilitate access to respective services” for citizens in rural Richland County.
“We just didn’t have enough information to do anything and certainly not appropriate that kind of money,” Councilman Greg Pearce said. Pearce represents District 6, which covers the Lake Katherine and South Beltline areas that also were hit hard by the flooding. “We’re not going to deny help down there (in Lower Richland). We will provide help.”
The flooding brought significant damage to the Lower Richland area, leading to power and cellphone outages, water and food shortages and isolation from the outside world as roads gave way and bridges crumbled.
State and federal officials have opened a disaster recovery center in Gadsden in Lower Richland at Temple of Faith Bible Way Church, 2850 Congaree Road. The center is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week to help survivors with applications for aid.
But, Washington said, “there’s a lot more work to be done in the Lower Richland community,” and the county does not have the infrastructure on its own to make recovery happen.
Some people are still without homes, Washington said, and many are unable to use their well water due to fecal contamination.
Washington declined any further comment once he learned The State had obtained a copy of the proposed contract with AT Consulting Group.
The contract proposal that was brought to council “doesn’t smell very good,” said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause South Carolina, a nonprofit ethics watchdog organization.
Crangle questioned why the contract would not be competitively bid and, because it had not been, why it was discussed in closed session Tuesday night.
“Beyond that, there’s the question of whether it’s really needed or not. Isn’t FEMA and the state government handling these responsibilities?” Crangle said. “The problem with this type of bid is there’s always the possibility of a sweetheart deal where people are friends of a councilman and they’re making the money off of it.”
The executive director of the Operations Center would have been paid $90 an hour for up to 2,160 hours of work. That would be an average of 98 hours per week. Total pay for that position could have amounted to $194,400.
Other personnel in the proposed contract included a deputy executive director, to be paid $60 hourly; three operations officers, to be paid $40 hourly; three logistics managers, to be paid $20 hourly; one media representative, to be paid $20 hourly; and eight administrative specialists, to be paid $15 hourly.
In addition to the personnel pay, the county would have been responsible for providing desks, chairs, tables, IT equipment and transportation assets for travel through Districts 10 and 11. The county could have been billed for out-of-pocket expenses, including costs associated with meals and lodging, related to the consulting group’s work.
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Turner was the first African-American commanding general of Fort Jackson, leading the fort from January 2004 to July 2005.
He went on to head the troubled S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, resigning in 2013 after lawmakers questioned why the agency had given 69 employees raises totaling nearly $440,000 while cutting one-on-one help for people seeking benefits in 17 rural offices statewide.
Soon after his resignation, Turner was hired by his alma mater, S.C. State University, to recruit veterans to enroll as students.