Five months ago, Hurricane Zeta barreled its way through the county causing arguably more tree damage and creating more storm debris than the fabled Hurricane Katrina some 15 years earlier. With Katrina, clean up began within days. For George Countians, Zeta has been a much different story as mountains of debris are still piled along county highways as clean up makes its snails pace through the court system.
On Monday, March 22, the George County Board of Supervisors met in a special called meeting to discuss the situation and strategize a solution, which consists mainly of waiting on an opinion by the Mississippi State Board of Contractors.
Board attorney Robert Shepard told the supervisors that he did not expect the Board of Contractors to issue any opinion until some time in April. The supervisors had been hoping for that opinion to be issued in March.
The ticking clock is FEMA. Zeta was declared a federal disaster on December 28, 2020. With that declaration, federal assistance is provided for the estimated three to four million dollars the cleanup project is estimated to cost. FEMA will pay 75 percent of the cost, and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) will pay 12-1/2 percent of the cost. The cleanup must be done in a timely manner, and that is six months, according to FEMA. In this case, for George County, that is the end of June, or FEMA may decide to pay nothing and the county could be stuck with the entire bill.
In Monday’s meeting the supervisors agreed to ask FEMA for an extension.
FEMA isn’t the only agency putting pressure on the supervisors for the cleanup. Both MEMA, and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality recognize the ditches filled with tree debris as environmental and safety hazards.
To qualify for this assistance, the county must comply with a number of FEMA guidelines, including advertising for debris contractor bids. In addition to a contractor that picks up the debris, the county is also required to hire a separate monitoring company to supervise the work.
The supervisors advertised for bids. Twenty bids were received for picking up the initial estimation of approximately 150,000 cubic yards of tree limbs and other debris. Bids ranged from a low of $1,686,613.00 to a high of over $3,000,000. State law requires the county to select the lowest qualified bidder.
The lowest bid was submitted by Custom Tree Care LLC, based in Kansas City, Kansas. CTC has successfully worked with FEMA in the past and operates in a number of states performing disaster clean up work. Appearing to be the lowest and best bid, the supervisors awarded the contract to CTC.
The second lowest bidder, Holliday Construction LLC, of Poplarville with a bid $2,352,050.00 immediately filed a complaint claiming CTC was not a qualified bidder because the Kansas company does not hold a Mississippi commercial contractor’s license issued by the Mississippi State Board of Contractors. The license is also known as a Certificate of Responsibility.
Commercial construction of $50,000 or more requires the contractor be licensed by the state Board of Contractors.
Upon the advice of their attorney, the supervisors disregarded Holliday’s complaint on the basis storm debris is not “construction.”
The state Board of Contractors website lists dozens of classifications on construction covering everything from flooring to millwrights, carpentry to hydroblasting, excavation to welding, fencing, electrical, masonry and much more. Storm debris removal is not on the list.
According to the court record, Holliday Construction LLC apparently contacted the state Board of Contractors for an opinion on whether debris removal required a state license. In a letter dated January 13, 2021, Executive Director Stephanie Sills Lee apparently responded to Holliday in the affirmative. By this time, the supervisors had already awarded the contract to CTC and cleanup work was underway.
Holliday sued. Circuit Court Judge Kathy Jackson, viewing herself as an appellate in this case, instructed the supervisors to get an opinion from the Board of Contractors.
Everyone, especially the citizens of George County, are still waiting.