Guilford fuel contract ignites controversy

by Jim Longworth

Guilford County, like the rest of the state, has been hit hard by unemployment and a weak economy. Given these perilous times (some economists say a double-dip recession is on the way), it is incumbent upon county commissioners to spend our tax dollars wisely, and to look for ways to save money wherever possible. On the other hand, we should keep in mind two, timeless adages: Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face, and Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. In other words, elected officials should never make decisions that end up jeopardizing or impeding government services just for the sake of a few dollars.

But that’s what has happened with the Guilford County fuel service contract this year.

Last week, Greensboro News & Record reporter Donald Patterson opened a can of worms when he revealed details about the contract between the county and James River Petroleum (JRP) to provide fuel for all county vehicles. For the past three years, the contract had been awarded to Berico Fuels, a local company that employs 90 people. But this year, the contract changed hands. JRP, located in Ashland, Va., had the winning bid at $587,000, undercutting Berico by a mere $847! Such a minimal difference in such a huge contract might arouse suspicions of bid-rigging, but at the very least it is as Berico owner Tom Berry said, “a slap in the face.” And that slap is particularly painful for two reasons. First, our local economy could have been buoyed by a local company that employs local people to provide fuel services to local government. And second, Berico’s past performance has been stellar and economical.

My friend Sheriff BJ Barnes told the N&R that he had warned County Manager Brenda Jones Fox in advance about giving the contract to “an unproven company.” But Barnes’ warning went unheeded, and the result was as he had expected.

“We have not gotten deliveries when we should… when we do get it, response is not as quick as we would like. Sometimes we get too much fuel, one time we got the wrong fuel,” said Barnes.

Patterson also reported that no one at JRP could be reached for comment, nor would they return his calls. However, I made one phone call and got a response on the first attempt. I spoke with Kitty Stallings, manager of inside sales, who said she was “not aware that [complaints] had escalated to that point [a newspaper article].” Said Stallings,”We have been discussing with Guilford County any of the issues that came up in the beginning, and all of them have been resolved.” As for not being available to the media, Stallings said, “I haven’t had any phone calls and I’ve been here the whole time.” I then asked Stallings to call me as soon as she had read the newspaper story, and she said she would. She never did.

Skip Alston, chairman of the county commissioners, WAS talking to the media, however, telling the N&R, “It’s supposed to be the lowest responsible bid… I don’t care if it is one dollar over, we have to accept the lowest possible bid.” But that’s not exactly accurate. Any governing body has the right to award a sole source, no-bid contract, regardless of cost, if the services needed are unique to that company, or if there is an emergency need involved. Clearly, providing fuel for sheriff’s department vehicles should constitute emergency need, and if Barnes was pleased with Berico’s performance, then the county manager and commissioners should have respected the sheriff’s wishes to continue on with a responsible, proven vendor.

The JRP deal reflects poorly on the county commissioners who simply chose not to apply a broad interpretation of procurement laws. Berry told the N&R, “[The commissioners] were afraid of getting sued if they didn’t honor the low bid.” No matter if Berry’s theory is true, Alston and his board have effectively cut off their own noses by awarding a half-million-dollar contract just because it might have saved the county $847 up front. Clearly, the deal has now cost the county a great deal more than that, both in terms of poor service and in public relations. Alston and company need to do all they can to support our local economy, and that means returning the fuel contract to Berico and its 90 employees.

The bathwater, it seems, didn’t need changing after all. Perhaps county leadership does.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).