DOBSON — A local contractor showed up Monday night to ask the Surry County Board of Commissioners what its problem is with him and his work.
In November, the Bannertown Volunteer Fire Department’s board president, Rondale Ratcliff, asked county commissioners for guidance regarding how his group was to pay a $55,000 bill for grading services at the department’s new location near the airport.
The substation had to be relocated due to the runway expansion project by the Mount Airy-Surry County Airport Authority.
“If you have a problem with the airport, you shouldn’t drag me and the fire department through it,” Rick Sowers, owner of Sowers Construction, told county commissioners at the board’s meeting on Monday.
Sowers took the podium during the board’s public forum portion of the meeting to directly ask board members if they had an issue with his work at the new site of the fire department’s substation.
When the airport authority purchased the fire department property, a section of the contract required the authority provide a build-ready site for a new substation.
However, after the first site of choice didn’t work out, the department learned grading had to be completed at its next choice. It contracted with Sowers, which was already completing grading services for the larger runway project.
Ratcliff noted in November that fire department officials acted in good faith. They had expected the airport authority to cover the cost of the grading, as it was required to provide a site which had already been graded.
The authority, however, has refused to pay the bill.
Ratcliff also noted had he foreseen the issue, the department “could have pumped the brakes” on contracting for the grading services.
An email from the airport authority’s attorney notes the airport was not involved in the process of contracting for the services at the fire department location, and may have been able to levy a better rate had it been involved.
Though fire department officials appeared before the county board twice, a majority of commissioners weren’t ready to pay the bill.
Commissioner Larry Johnson sought to force the issue in early February, however.
“I’d like to go ahead and approve paying for the grading bill at the Bannertown Volunteer Fire Department,” said Johnson, explaining he believed Surry County would eventually foot the bill for the work.
However, Johnson’s motion to pay the bill died when it failed to garner a second.
Other commissioners believed Surry County had no legal responsibility to pay the bill, as county officials did not enter into the agreement. The majority also believed the grading costs ought to be paid using grant monies the airport authority received for the runway expansion since the relocation of the department was part of the overall runway project.
“Did anybody from this board sign a contract?” asked Commissioner Buck Golding, in order to note Surry County had never entered into an agreement for the services. “Did you sign a contract, Mr. County Manager?”
Sowers’ appearance before the board on Monday was, apparently, the result of his receiving a phone call from Board Chair Eddie Harris to explain the county’s position.
“There has to be a process here, and I hope it’s adjudicated quickly,” Harris told Sowers on Monday. “Bear with us a bit longer, so we can sort through this.”
Harris also noted their are “underlying issues” at the airport, and there were missteps in the process of contracting for the grading services.
Harris explained he wanted to see Sowers Construction paid for its services, but he and his board must always place the interests of the county taxpayers at the forefront of discussion.
“I want you paid,” Harris told Sowers.
Sowers said he wasn’t there asking for a check, however. Instead, he was concerned about reports that the members of the county board may have questioned his business practices or the quality of his work.
In November, Commissioner Van Tucker did note, “The dirt came from across the street.” He raised questions regarding whether costs could have been cut had the authority negotiated the dirt’s relocation to the property on which it was needed from the beginning.
On Monday, Sowers told the board the price he charged was fair.
“The question at hand is how to pay the bill,” answered Harris. “I have no authority or knowledge to question the numbers on your bill.”
“Everyone on the board knows you need to get paid,” said Tucker. “We didn’t enter into a contract. We just got sent the bill.”
In a subsequent interview, Tucker noted he never meant to question Sowers’ integrity or his price. He is, however, concerned all parties to the agreement were never brought to the negotiating table. Perhaps, if the work had been coordinated between the airport authority and the fire department, better arrangements could have been made.
Tucker also said the county may end up paying the bill. If that’s the case, the county should have been involved in the process to implement the contract.
“If we are expected to pay the bill, the county should have been in front of this process not behind it and left with the bill,” added Tucker.
When Harris asked Johnson for comment, he explained he had none, as he had made his position the county ought to simply pay the bill clear in prior meetings.
Following Monday’s meeting, Harris also noted there are two other possible paths of recourse for the entities involved. Sowers construction could seek legal recourse against the fire department for nonpayment. The fire department could also seek legal recourse against the airport authority, citing its failure to provide a build-ready site to the department.
Before Sowers ended his public forum comments, he also made mention that receiving pay for his company’s services was a problem before the grading work at the fire department’s location was completed.
“This has been going on since the beginning (of the project),” Sowers told commissioners. “It started before the fire department. The airport was behind by five months in payments.”
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.