Update: On Oct. 6, the city council again tabled a vote on the biosolids contracting until November. However, the council did vote this afternoon to send documents related to the contract-award process to the state auditor, attorney general and ethics commission for review.
With the Jackson City Council’s vote last week against a proposal for federal government-mandated hauling of biosolids from a city wastewater treatment plant, Mayor Tony Yarber is asking government regulators for more time.
The city’s settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the dumping of untreated wastewater into the Pearl River requires, among other things, for the city to remove sludge from holding lagoons at wastewater treatment plants. These so-called biosolids must be hauled away before the start of 2018, under the consent decree with the feds.
Otherwise, the city could face stiff penalties. Yarber hopes to avoid the fines, telling the Jackson Free Press after a city council work session on Sept. 21 that his administration has alerted the EPA that the city might be in violation.
The potential violation stems from the ongoing controversy surrounding the contractors battling for the $13 million to $15 million job. Last week, with Yarber and three council members absent, only one member voted in favor of a proposal from the joint venture between Russellville, Ark.-based Denali Water Solutions and the local Garrett Enterprises to remove 304,000 wet tons of biosolids from plastic geotubes at the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment plant.
At the Sept. 22 city council meeting, Ward 4 Councilman De'Keither Stamps unsuccessfully brought forth an emergency agenda item requesting the state attorney general, auditor and ethics commission each review the proposal process to ensure procurement procedures were followed.
Ward 2 Councilman Melvin Priester Jr. was the lone yes vote when the vote was taken last Thursday. The other members attending (Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote, Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman and Ward 6 Councilman Tyrone Hendrix) voted against the contract.
“We feel like we just got run over by a truck, so we’ll go to the hospital, stop the bleeding and figure out if we’re going to recover from it,” Dorsey Carson, an attorney for the Denali-Garrett team, told the JFP after the meeting Thursday morning. “It’s instances like this that cause national companies not to want to do business with the city of Jackson.”
The deal has become a lightning rod because of Garrett’s relationship with Yarber’s 2014 election campaign to which Garrett was a major contributor, a fact highlighted in several news stories. Yarber has repeatedly said that no contractor receives preferential treatment from his administration.
Garrett, a principal in the firm who attended the meeting, declined to speak with the JFP about the action. However, in a letter to the editor published in the Mississippi Link, which Garrett formerly owned but has since turned over to family members, he outlined several of what he believes are his company’s competitive advantages over Synagro-Fisher.
Among them, Garrett writes, are his company’s holding permits for 7,000 acres for land application, or disposal, in Yazoo and Rankin counties and Madison Parrish, La.,
This, Garrett argues, will enable his team to work faster and year-round. By contrast, Synagro-Fisher representatives say that working year-round is impossible and that their crews would work eight months out of the year hauling to Alabama, where dumping laws are more permissive.
In June, the City issued a request for proposals for disposal of sludge at the Savanna Wastewater Treatment plant and received two proposals: one from Denali-Garrett and another from Baltimore-based Synagro-WWT Inc. working with Fisher Construction and Transportation.
After two rounds of negotiations, Denali’s proposals came in at $15.46 million, which Garrett’s attorney, Carson, says is less than Synagro’s offer of $15.53 million. Wilson Carroll, an attorney for Synagro-Fisher, told the Jackson Free Press and then showed a slide at city council Tuesday stating that his client’s best and final offer is $13.6 million.
The Jackson Free Press has submitted a public-records request for both companies’ proposals in addition to other documentation related to the award.
Kishia Powell, the director of public works, previously described the 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 on Sept. 14, referring to Denali-Garrett.
Three years ago, the city approved a $9-million contract with Russellville, Ark.-based Terra Renewal Services (now called Denali) to remove the sludge now stored in three lagoons at the treatment plant. Carroll said he was pleased with the vote last week and hopes his client will be considered to receive the new contract.
Yarber had put the proposal back on the agenda for the Sept. 22 council meeting, but pulled the item in part to give Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon, who was in the hospital and has been participating in meetings by phone, a chance to vote.
The mayor wants to put the Denali-Garrett contract up for a revote at the next regular city council meeting; if it fails, he said the project will put out to bid and hopefully bidders won’t be scared away by the messiness of the controversy.
Asked if he thinks the City can still make the federal deadline, Yarber said: “It’s going to be hard.
Timeline: How Waste-gate Went Down
May 2012 — For Phase I of the project, the Jackson City Council authorizes a $9 million contract with Russellville, Ark.-based Terra Renewal Services (now Denali) to remove the sludge stored in three lagoons at the Savanna Street Waste Water Treatment Plant. Dan Gaillet, the city's public-works director at the time, said the total amount of sludge that needs to be pumped out of the lagoons totals 57 acres—43 times larger than a football field.
October 2012— The city council approves what would become a $91 million contract with Siemens, approximately $26 million of which is earmarked for expenses related to an anticipated consent decree with federal environmental regulators.
Nov. 21, 2012 — After months of negotiations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) announce a comprehensive Clean Water Act settlement with the City of Jackson "to make improvements to its sewer systems to eliminate unauthorized overflows of untreated raw sewage and unauthorized bypasses of treatment at the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant, the city's largest wastewater treatment facility." The work is expected to cost at least $400 million over 17 years.
Spring and Summer 2013—The consent decree emerges as a hot-button issue during municipal elections that resulted in the election of then-
Ward 2 Councilman Chokwe Lumumba. In his first budget proposal, Lumumba recommends water and sewer rate increases in part to help pay for consent-decree work.
January 2014 — Citizens of Jackson vote overwhelmingly to implement an additional 1-percent sales tax on certain goods, again to raise funds for infrastructure improvements, including the consent decree. A month later, Lumumba dies, and a special election for his seat is called.
Spring 2014—Former Ward 6 Councilman Tony Yarber wins election as Jackson mayor with the support of local business leaders, including Socrates Garrett, who contributed at least $30,000, a third of which was a loan, to Yarber's campaign.
March 2015 — The city solicits proposals for the removal of biosolids at the Savanna Street plant.
April 2015—The city solicits proposals for a consent-decree contract management firm.
Summer 2015 — An evaluation team from the Department of Public Works reviews proposals for the biosolids contract and recommends the proposal from Denali Water Solutions and Socrates Garrett Enterprises over the one submitted by Baltimore-based Synagro-WWT Inc. and the local Fisher Construction and Transportation.
Denali-SGE's initial proposal of $16.9 million 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, subsequently told the Jackson City Council as well as the JFP that his client's best and final offer is $13.6 million.
August 2015 — The Northside Sun publishes a story headlined "City Allegedly Steering Bid to Major Contributor." Later in the month, Garrett's lawyers successfully sought a temporary-restraining order to bar Synagro's attorney from releasing the Denali-Garrett proposal.
September 14, 2015 — Yarber responds indirectly to media reports, saying during a council meeting that "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)."
Sept. 17, 2015 —The city council votes no on approving the Denali-SGE proposal by a vote of 3 to 1, with three members absent. The Yarber administration subsequently puts the item back on the agenda for revote for Tuesday, Sept. 22.
Sept. 21, 2015 — Yarber pulls the contract from consideration and says he plans to put it back up for consideration at a council meeting in the near future.