The Hall County Board of Commissioners held an explosive discussion about the future of the Glades Reservoir project at its board meeting Thursday.
The commissioners voted in public during the meeting to authorize paying $3 million to the owners of the Glades Farm property, where the reservoir will be built, to reimburse them for money they spent to obtain a federal permit.
They took the same vote in a closed session Sept. 8. The vote became the subject of controversy after commission hopefuls Scott Gibbs and Craig Lutz wrote a letter to County Administrator Charley Nix questioning the legality of the discussion.
The county has always agreed to reimburse the Glades property owners for costs expended in the permitting process for the reservoir. What was discussed in executive session was paying less of the costs up front and more following the issuance of the federal permit for the construction of the reservoir.
The county has been reviewing the reservoir plans, which date back to the early ’90s, and negotiating which charges — for engineering and consulting services, among others — are directly tied to the permitting process and should be paid for by Hall County.
Following the commission’s decision to publicly vote and clear the air, Commissioner Ashley Bell asked the board to consider putting its future consulting services out to bid.
Bell said he would like the county to “consider putting this project out for proposal so we can get an understanding of the fair market value of the services we’re getting, who out there can also do this and at what value. That process should not impede the current application process. Let’s go forward and see who can do this cheaper and or better.”
The Glades Reservoir project was originally a public-private partnership with the owners of the Glades Farm property, a large undeveloped tract of land in northeast Hall County that was being used to harvest timber.
The main consultants for the project, former Environmental Protection Division director Harold Reheis and attorney Tommy Craig, were originally retained by the Glades property owners. Following their departure from the project, Reheis and Craig stayed on to work for the county.
“There should be nothing to stop us going forward on the permit, but the team that we have now, nobody in this administration approved them,” Bell said. “All we did is adopt the same team that the private company had. These are our folks now, they’re working for us. The moneys we’re paying now have never been put out for proposal. If the commission decides we have the best team out there, so be it.”
Chairman Tom Oliver said such a move would likely jeopardize the project, which is working toward a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“What you’re saying is you want to tell Harold Reheis and those guys to stop the permitting now?” Oliver said, pointing out that they have been working toward the permit for 12 years. “We were working with them to develop the most economical and smoothest project we could put forward. To come in now and throw it in the middle of chaos, I’m not in favor of that.”
The other commissioners attacked the idea as well.
“Are you just trying to stop the Glades Farm project?” asked Commissioner Billy Powell.
“Are you wanting to fire them and go forward with a whole new company? What are you saying? You work for the city don’t you?” said Commissioner Bobby Banks, alluding to the fact that Bell is the commissioner representing the city of Gainesville. Gainesville and Hall County have been in disagreement for months over the reservoir.
Hall County pays $40,000 per month to consultants for the Glades Reservoir, with a cap of $1.5 million.
“If we pay $1.5 million to get the (federal) 404 permit, that’s money well spent. They’ve got a track record,” Oliver said.
The commissioners decided to take the matter up at its next work session and invite the consultants in to speak.
Banks, who leaves office in three months, said situations like the executive session vote reflect poorly on the board.
“It looks like probably what we need to do is just shut the county down. Every time we do something you’re either crooked, you’re sorry, whatever you want to call it. And I’m fed up with it,” Banks said.