Marion City Council adjourned Tuesday night with more questions than answers about the purchase late last year of two new air conditioning units for the Old Depot building on Washington Street. The building, which the city owns, is sometimes rented out for parties and private events.
Councilmember Joe Pearson said the council voted “ten months ago” to approve spending $9500 toward repairs on the air conditioning system at the Depot, but that the city’s books recently showed a recent expenditure of over $21,000 for the purchase of two new units for that building. “Who approved that?” he asked.
Rice Heating and Cooling had been paid by the city to do the work, according to city financial records. The bill appears to have been paid out of a city savings account held with Marion Community Bank that had been set aside as a “Community Development Fund,” primarily for repairs and improvements to the city’s water system.
City Clerk Laura Hinton said she thought the purchase had been a miscommunication: “I assume—I wasn’t at that particular meeting—I assume that it was in the package and when I went to pay bills I made sure the company got paid. That was just a miscommunication that was done, because it actually was approved, like, a few months ago, like you said, to go ahead and do the $9500 for the repairs for the Depot. Up to that amount.”
“And so when I came back I remember telling you guys about—somebody had rented the facility and turned the air down so low that they had it on 52 degrees and it burned out the other side of the unit,” Hinton continued. “So we put it back on the agenda to be approved for December, and I thought that it was approved in December. The reason why it was going to be that way, because it just didn’t make sense to fix the one side…but then have the other side push so hard to then blow the new unit out. That’s why it went back on the agenda in December. But that was just a mishap or miscommunication, because I wasn’t at that meeting, or we didn’t have a meeting in December until—I don’t think we had another meeting until we had that special called session [to set a town-wide curfew in response to two related homicides in the city].”
Hinton said that several companies had submitted proposals or bids on doing the repair work back when the council had voted on it in early 2022.
“We prepared the bids, and we brought them here, and that was one of the companies that was on the list. So Ms. Curry actually pulled the companies off the list, they submitted the second portion of it, and that was [on the agenda to be voted on Dec. 19],” she said. “At that time, it had already become—I think it was a lot of miscommunication— I got the bill, got it installed, and we made sure the bill was paid.”
“The job was not posted, and it was not bidded. That was illegal,” said Pearson.
Hinton said she would have to ask city employee Yolanda Curry for more clarification on the issue. She said the work did not violate the bid law. “Some of it was bidded up to the 9500. Or, that wasn’t bidded, you guys voted on it.”
Pearson said he had contacted the other companies on the bid list and was told that they were not given an opportunity to bid on the work. He said one business told him “they got a call from a lady at City Hall who said don’t bother coming and giving us a price on it because we’ve already got the repairs done.”
“Let me speak with Ms. Curry and find out with her and see what could have taken place with that,” said Hinton.
“I assure you if it had come around this table [for a vote] to spend $21000 on changing out equipment at the Depot that doesn’t get rented 10 times a year— that’s throwing city money away,” said Pearson.
“I know the $9500 was voted on,” Hinton said.
“hat was strictly for repairs,” said Pearson. “Not changing out equipment. This was two brand new 7.5 ton systems.” Pearson said the contractors had brought in the equipment, installed it, then discovered that the installed equipment was the wrong voltage and had to uninstall and replace it.
“I can’t tell you about voltage on an air unit or any of that particular part…, but we can try to get to the bottom of the communication part and get the email communication from Ms. Curry because she was the one communicating with them, go from there,” said Hinton. “A portion, up to $9500, was voted on by the governing body.”
“For repairs,” said Pearson.
“For that particular part,” said Hinton. “So it needs to come up and maybe be discussed. But it has been done. The work has been done.”
Pearson said the work was illegal and violated Alabama’s bid laws: “You don’t have to necessarily have two bids, but you have to publicize. And if only one person bids, then you can accept that bid. But it has to be publicized…this was done real quick.”
“Let me get [Curry’s] communications, her email communications that she had with the company, let me pull the minutes that were sent to the council and what the council voted on, and let’s go back to just look at everything that happened in that time period,” said Hinton. “That’s the best information I can tell you, and the first portion was voted on. I think the combined information—a portion of it was voted on. If [it had been done without a vote of the council] then of course it was illegal. But if a portion of it was voted on then it’s not to that particular thing. Because it was publicized at first, and that’s how we got the three [bidders on the city’s list]—… and you guys said we could spend 9500 on that.”
Hinton asked Pearson if he would have wanted the system repaired or replaced for the $9,500 that the council had approved.
“What it comes down to in the end whether it was $10,000 or $20,000—it depends on some interpretations of the minutes and so forth — was spent without the approval of the council. I don’t know how it’s going to be fixed, but I know I wouldn’t have approved $20,000 to fix an air conditioner,” said Councilmember Jeff Nail.
“We’re talking about $11,000 here,” said Councilmember Willie Jackson, pointing out the difference between what the council had voted to approve and what ultimately was spent. “They didn’t run this by you?”
“Why was Ms. Curry involved in this?” Asked Pearson.
“From my understanding it was additional issues. From Mr. Pearson’s understanding it was something totally different. I guess I’m going to have to look at it,” said Mayor Dexter Hinton.
“I think that’s why it went on the agenda in December. It wasn’t to disregard the council. It was on the December meeting. I don’t think Ms. Curry’s in charge of council members showing up for your meetings to have a quorum. I think it just needs to be reviewed all together. I think it was just a misunderstanding and miscommunication. I don’t think it’s anything that was intentional,” said City Clerk Laura Hinton.