Redevelopment Commission's muscle to help guide Beaufort future

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Redevelopment Commission's muscle to help guide Beaufort future



By JULIANN VACHON
jvachon@beaufortgazette.com
843-706-8184

info@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, October 16, 2010   |  754 Words  |  
  • The Beaufort Redevelopment Commission recently approved a $700,000 contract for consulting services without taking competitive bids.

    And it didn't have to.

    Designed to help the commission put Beaufort's 2009 Comprehensive Plan into action, the contract went to The Lawrence Group -- the same architectural, interior design and planning firm the city paid about $100,000 to draft the plan.

    That cost includes one full-time staff person, who will work from Beaufort's City Hall, and two part-time co-directors, according to the contract.

    It marks one of the biggest and most expensive steps the group has taken since City Council members voted themselves off the nine-person commission last year, filled their empty seats with non-elected members and handed off Beaufort's downtown parking system, giving the commission its first funding stream.

    It also highlights some of its far-reaching power as allowed by South Carolina statute -- awarding contracts without seeking multiple bids.

    "When City Council changed the commission's makeup, it suddenly became a business group making tough business decisions," commission chairman Bob Pinkerton said. "It's a different kind of control. Instead of a competitive bidding process, you've got a group of civilians looking at it."

    The commission can also:

  • Exercise eminent domain.
  • Sell, exchange or transfer property.
  • Hire engineering, legal, surveying, professional or similar services.
  • Borrow money.
  • Enter partnerships with developers or nonprofit agencies.
  • Be sued.

    Had City Council been awarding the recent contract, it would have had to seek requests for proposals or qualifications, conduct interviews or discussions with at least three firms and then negotiate an agreement with the highest qualified company, according to Beaufort's code of ordinances.

    If less than three firms respond to the advertisement after "adequate time was allowed for response," the city can move forward.

    'THE APPROPRIATE DIRECTION'

    For more than a year and a half, the city has repeatedly touted its ability to improve services while saving money. The contract with the Lawrence Group is another example, city manager Scott Dadson said.

    City Council members cited a need for new energy, entrepreneurship and leadership from individuals with expertise and time to apply it when they removed themselves from the commission. All five council members were quick to point out they retain oversight and can remove members without cause.

    But it is also must remain constantly engaged, Councilman Mike Sutton said.

    "This council and future councils have to learn how to work with these powerful groups and make sure we're going in the appropriate direction," Sutton said.

    Pinkerton said in this particular case, the Lawrence Group put a proposal together and Dadson brought it to the Redevelopment Commission for review and approval.

    City Council members got a proposal briefing from the firm and the city manager during a closed session sometime before the commission voted on the deal, Mayor Billy Keyserling said.

    "We were told by the city manager that he was laying the framework for a contract that was bigger than anything of its kind," Keyserling said. "We did not review the contract itself, but we were briefed on the idea of the contract."

    Council didn't appear to have any objections, although it never formally voted on the deal.

    PLANNING AND ASSISTANCE

    Only about $100,000 of the contract's financing came from the commission's budget. The remainder came from a combination of sources, including two tax increment finance districts, the planning department budget, reserves left over from other projects and a redevelopment fund, assistant city manager and chief financial officer Shirley Hughes said.

    The money was already budgeted for consulting services and was just shifted around, Hughes said.

    The Lawrence Group will provide support across city departments, not just to the Redevelopment Commission, city manager Scott Dadson said. Among other things, the contract requires the Lawrence Group to provide staff support, on-call planning, and assistance with design and city buildings.

    Without this setup, the city would likely have multiple contracts to get the same services, officials said.

    "We were trying to figure out a way to staff and support and coordinate," Dadson said. "We also knew that we didn't want to do anything permanent. ... We have a defined period of time and can wind it up if we have to."