DEVELOPING STORY: Hall County Commissioners agreed this morning to hire AECOM to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on the Glades Reservoir project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The county will spend up to $1.53 million on the project.
The commission voted 3-2 to hire the firm. Commissioners Craig Lutz and Ashley Bell opposed it.
This story will be updated.
EARLIER STORY: The permit for Glades Reservoir is apparently a moving target.
The Hall County Board of Commissioners, which mere months ago had the promise of a dedicated federal employee to aid in the permitting process, is now considering other, more expensive options for acquiring federal permission to build the North Hall reservoir.
Commissioners will vote today on a proposal to hire engineering firm AECOM to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on Glades for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The cost of the service is not supposed to exceed $1.53 million, according to commission documents, but it is much more than what commissioners said they would pay three months ago.
In September, commissioners said they had an agreement with the corps that would have allowed them to shorten the normal timeframe for an impact statement at a cost of some $300,000.
The money would have paid the salary of a corps employee who would walk county officials through the rigorous permitting process required for the reservoir.
The deal with the corps would also have kept county officials from jumping through expensive permitting hoops, and shortened the timeframe of preparing the statement to two years from as many as five.
But that agreement seems to have dissipated, though the corps has not yet responded to a request for comment on why. Commissioners were also unclear as to the reasons for the change.
And it seems the county is moving forward with some - but not all - of the demands the corps made this summer.
The corps told the county in July letter that its proposal to build Glades was too controversial for the federal agency to cut corners on a permit.
The project is supposed to provide 80 million gallons of water per day to the Northeast Georgia region. It would impound water headed for the Chattahoochee River, creating an 850-acre lake north of Lake Lanier.
In the letter to Commission Chairman Tom Oliver, a corps permitting official said the future of Glades would depend upon the outcome of an in-depth environmental impact statement.
According to the letter, that statement was to be prepared by an independent consulting firm chosen by the corps but paid for by the county.
But following intervention by Gov. Nathan Deal and the former head of the state's Environmental Protection Division, Allen Barnes, the rules for the county's permit changed.
Commissioners then voted to pay a corps employee in what seemed to be a compromise that appeared to reduce the expense and the time frame to prepare the statement.
But with little public discussion over the next three months, the rules for the permit changed once again.
"The corps decided that was not the way they wanted to go," Oliver said.
As a result, commissioners are voting today to pay AECOM as much as $1.53 million to prepare the statement.
County Administrator Randy Knighton said the corps has already deemed AECOM as a suitable third-party engineer. Though the county will pay the firm, AECOM will work at the corps' direction, Knighton said.
"This is the new arrangement," he said. "This has been deemed to be the most appropriate arrangement for undertaking the EIS and seeking the permit."
If the corps did approve AECOM as an independent engineer, it did not require the county to submit a list of three firms for it to choose, which was the original procedure laid out in the July letter from corps regulatory chief Russ Kaiser.
Kaiser, in a letter notifying the county that Glades would be subject to the in-depth permitting process, suggested that the county propose three teams of engineers to prepare and complete the statement.
The corps would then pick one engineer to prepare it at the county's expense.
Oliver said AECOM has prepared similar statements for the corps and that corps officials have indicated they "feel comfortable" with the firm.
Knighton said the county had not been required to submit the names of three firms to the corps.
If the deal goes through, Oliver said the permitting process for Glades could be curtailed, taking as few as 12 months. Still, Oliver acknowledges the process could take another two years.
"This is a better system than we've had before," he said. "It has more clarifications. AECOM is an expert in doing this; they've done it before. They know where we are."
But there is a question as to whether AECOM is actually a third-party to the Glades project.
While commissioners and county staff say the firm has not been specifically involved in planning for the reservoir, they do concede that AECOM worked on a master plan for North Hall water and sewer, which included Glades.
According to previous Times reports, commissioners started a bidding process for engineering firms to help with Glades back in May; at that point, Oliver, who was opposed to the bidding process, said AECOM had done "extensive work" on the project.
"How that fits the definition of independent, I'm not quite sure," Commissioner Ashley Bell said Wednesday.
Bell is one of at least two commissioners who have concerns that today's vote won't follow proper procedure.
While neither Craig Lutz nor Bell could say for sure how they would vote on the issue, both said they had questions about the process.
Both commissioners also said their questions had nothing to do with the need for Glades, which they said is necessary without question, but only with the path the county was taking to get it approved.
"I need to know a little bit more about what's going on," Lutz said. "I'm leaning now on not voting (for it), based on procedure."
Bell said the issue for him seemed to be a "no-bid contract for $1.5 million." He said commissioners should spend two months seeking out and evaluating engineers that can do the work for less money.
He said the county still may find that AECOM is the best firm for the job, but if so, Bell said the firm should have to prove it.
"I have no reason to support a noncompetitive process, and I doubt I will tomorrow," he said.
He cited the glaring difference between a decision to pay $300,000 to have the statement prepared and another decision to pay $1.53 million for what seemed to be the same outcome.
"In my mind, there's a million-dollar mark-up on this," Bell said. "... I can't see any justification for it. Maybe they'll have a good explanation for it at the commission meeting and change my mind."
County staff said there is money available in the budget to pay AECOM.
According to numbers provided by Knighton and purchasing manager Tim Sims, some $3.68 million remains in the county's permitting budget for Glades.
If AECOM is hired today, that number will shrink to about $2.15 million.
The county spends about $65,000 in average monthly fees to consultants already assigned to the project.
It is unclear whether the county will continue to pay those consultants - specifically Tommy Craig and Joe Tanner and Associates - a monthly retainer fee while AECOM prepares the statement for the corps.
Commissioner Billy Powell said commissioners won't continue to pay the other consultants, but both Oliver and Knighton said those costs will be evaluated once the board makes its decision today.
"If the board does approve it, I think it would warrant an assessment, an evaluation, of the roles that are being played by the consultant team," Knighton said. "And obviously, we want to make sure that we have the necessary professionals in place to pursue and acquire the permit, but we also want to be fiscally responsible."
A spokesman for the corps did not respond to requests for information by press time.
Commissioner Scott Gibbs, whose district comprises the future reservoir, also did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.