Mayor Tony Yarber denied Tuesday that his biggest campaign contributor is receiving preferential treatment for a $15-million city contract.
In June, the City issued a request for proposals for disposal of sludge at the Savanna Wastewater Treatment plant and received proposals from two teams: One from Russellville, Ark.-based Denali Water Solutions working with the local Garrett Enterprises and the other from Baltimore-based Synagro-WWT Inc. and Fisher Construction and Transportation.
A public-works evaluation team recommended giving the contract to Denali-Garrett despite its initial proposal of $16.9 million, which was $1.4 million higher than Synagro Fisher's $15.4 million. After a second round of negotiations, Denali's proposals came in at $15.46 million, which Garrett's attorney, Dorsey Carson, says is less than Synagro's offer of $15.53 million.
Wilson Carroll, an attorney for Synagro-Fisher, told the Jackson Free Press by phone on Tuesday that his client's best and final offer is now for $13.6 million.
Furthermore, Garrett's relationship to Yarber's election campaign of 2014 in which Garrett donated at least $30,000 raised questions about whether Yarber's administration was attempting to steer the deal to a political donor.
Yarber's denial of favoritism came toward the end of a Jackson City Council discussion Monday about approval of the Denali-Garrett contract, which has been pulled from the agenda several times already and is tabled until later this week. Yarber answered what he called an allusion "to whether there was the potential (that) some kind of indiscretion had taken place" in the Garrett firm receiving the recommendation from public works.
"At no point will staff, as long as I'm here, be responsible to any contractor past ensuring that they have the opportunity they should have to receive work here in the city. Past that, there will be no additional benefits (to contractors)," Yarber said during a city council discussion on the proposals Monday afternoon.
Yarber added that he is not involved in such decisions until his staff makes a recommendation. Kishia Powell, the city's public-works director, described the contract award as a "cost proposal" rather than "low-bid process" and said that Synagro-Fisher's proposal lacked detail that "lessened our confidence in the price they proposed." Specifically, Powell said Synagro-Fisher's proposal did not demonstrate that the company had negotiated a tipping, or disposal, fee with landfills, nor did it specify transportation routes.
"One team laid out a specific proposal with travel estimated times and mileage, which gave us more confidence in that proposal," Powell said, referring to Denali-Garrett.
Carroll, told the Jackson Free Press by phone this morning that Powell's statements are "completely false."
"I think the Department of Public Works wildly misrepresented the nature of the Synagro proposal," Carroll told the JFP. "Do you think we would submit a bid and not know what our costs are?"
He declined to provide the JFP with a copy of his client's proposal, citing a temporary-restraining order Hinds County Chancery Court Judge William Singletary granted earlier in the month, at the request of Garrett's attorneys, barring Carroll from releasing Denali-Garrett's proposal.
Garrett defended his company's record of hauling biosolids for the past 15 to 20 years, saying the work can be unpredictable at times because of the costs associated with keeping farmers and landowners happy.
"We have the occasions where we have to repair a fence, we have to repair roads, we have to herd cattle, we have to put horses back in the pen. We have to keep that farmer happy," Garrett said.
In 2012, the city approved a $9-million contract with Russellville, Ark.-based Terra Renewal Services to remove the sludge now stored in three lagoons at the treatment plant. As part of the consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the city has until 2017 to remove the waste from the site, putting crews on a tight timetable, officials said.
Given the time constraints, Yarber further defended his staff's recommendation to go with the high offer. The mayor, a former city council member from Ward 6, added: "What we've learned in previous administrations is sometimes the lower price sends us back to a place where we're getting cost overruns, where we're requesting the council to approve change orders."
Email news editor R.L. Nave at [email protected].
Update: This story has been updated to reflect: Denali-Garrett says its best and final offer is $15.46 million, which the firm's attorneys say is also the lower offer. It also replaces the word bid with the word proposal in some instances.