A special called meeting of the Jefferson County Quorum Court on July 3 was only supposed to provide a discussion of an energy saving program for the county but before it was over, tempers were flaring and justices of the peace were yelling at each other.
Members of the county’s Building and Grounds Committee, specifically justices of the peace Danny Holcomb, Ted Harden and Dr. Herman Ginger, who chairs the court’s Finance Committee, have been holding meetings with County Judge Booker Clemons to discuss making the courthouse more energy efficient.
A decision was made to ask the two companies that had shown an interest in doing the work to prepare new engineering studies for the committee to consider.
However, at the meeting, members of the county’s legislative body were asked to vote on a resolution authorizing one of the two companies, Johnson Controls Inc., (JCI) to do the work.
“We thought we had an agreement going in, but Justice Harden chose to ignore that agreement,” Ginger said. “This was a backdoor deal that nobody knew about and we didn’t find out about until just before the meeting started. That’s why there was the shouting match between Justice Harden and Justice Holcomb.”
For his part, Harden placed the blame on Holcomb, who is chairman of the Building and Grounds Committee.
“This was never taken to committee and never discussed,” Harden said. “It was on the agenda twice and Danny (Holcomb) pulled it twice. We were looking at a deadline to lock in the interest rate.”
Both Holcomb and Ginger voted no on the agreement, and two other JP’s, Mandy Alford and Melanie Johnson Dumas, abstained. In addition, Justice of the Peace Cedric Jackson was absent, and Justice of the Peace Delton Wright, who attended the committee meetings on July 3, left before the special meeting.
In addition to Harden, justices of the peace Reginald Adams, Roy Agee, Dr. Conley Byrd, Morris Caldwell, Jimmy Fisher and Brenda Bishop Gaddy voted in favor of the proposal.
At stake is a just over $2 million agreement to do the work, with both JCI and Engie Company submitting proposals — Engie after making a presentation in May 2017 and JCI after making a presentation in November.
“Hank (former County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV) signed a project development agreement with JCI to get them to do the study,” Harden said. “JCI actually won the bid but then Engie came back and wanted to re-bid after JCI had already done the preliminary work. That’s just not kosher.”
Harden said JCI contacted a number of banks and financial institutions to finance the project, including, at his request, Simmons Bank and Relyance Bank, but only two banks responded. A bank in North Carolina offered a 20-year fixed rate loan with an interest rate of 3.94 percent. However, he said that in order to get that rate, the paperwork would have to be done within 30 days and time was running out.
“It takes about 10 days to close on a loan of that magnitude and everybody knew that,” Harden said. “It should have never been pulled so that we could have discussed it and we wouldn’t be having to go through this.”
Harden also said that he had asked Clemons to schedule a committee meeting so that he, Holcomb and Ginger, could discuss the matter last week, but Clemons said no, adding that he didn’t want another small meeting. Instead, he wanted the full court to have the facts so they could vote the plan up or down.
Both Ginger and Holcomb objected to the special meeting, with Ginger saying that all the information that was requested, specifically utility usage from Entergy Arkansas, Centerpoint Energy and Liberty Utilities, has not been received and forwarded to the committee.
“I don’t care who gets the job,” Ginger said. “I just want what is best for the county. We don’t need to be here until Buildings and Grounds presents their recommendations.”
They also objected to the presence of a representative of JCI, Alex Ray, at the meeting, particularly after learning that a representative of Engie, Neal Turner, had not been invited or even told about the meeting. Ray said he had been invited but declined to say who invited him.
“There were five of us in that meeting,” Ginger said. “Myself, Justice Holcomb, the judge, (county) attorney (Jackie) Harris and Justice Harden. The judge said he didn’t call Ray, the attorney said he didn’t call Ray. Danny said he didn’t call Ray, and I know I didn’t call Ray...that leaves Ted.”
Ginger also said that without the representative from Engie there, members of the Quorum Court only got half the information they needed to make a decision.
“Any time somebody tells me I’ve got to sign right now, I’m not going to sign,” Ginger said. “Neal Turner has said the interest rate should be between 3.8 and 4 percent. This was a scare tactic on the part of JCI.”
In an email to The Pine Bluff Commercial Saturday, Harden said he had been told that Engie had no representatives based in Arkansas and the company’s rep for the state lives in Mississippi. On the other hand, JCI has six offices in Arkansas with more than 160 employees.
“This is also a weighted factor to many of us,” Harden said in the email.
Among the problems Holcomb and Ginger say they have with the JCI proposal is that they will install their own controllers on air handlers and the like, preventing any local companies from doing maintenance on them. In addition, the company requires a maintenance service agreement which could also lock out local service companies from doing work. In response to that, Harden said he has been given verbal assurances from JCI that they will use local companies but admitted there is nothing in writing to that effect.
“I don’t think that will be a problem to get it in writing,” Harden said.
Harden also sent The Commercial a statement he said JCI made to Wilkins regarding the use of local companies.
“We will use all of the local resources available to JCI to keep as much of the investment as possible inside Jefferson County,” the statement said.
“The problem is that JCI is not going to address the problems we have now,” Ginger said. “They’re going to put thermostats on worn-out air conditioners and in two to five years, those are going to go out and the county’s going to have to come up with a lot of money to pay for them.”