The Clarke County Joint Building Committee’s normally low-key meeting tenor, where representatives from the Town of Berryville as well as the County of Clarke share decisions over how best to run the County’s new office building, took on the flavor of a clan feud on Wednesday morning as members from each side defended and attacked each other using budget funds for weapons.
The budget dispute, which involves $140K of funds being withheld from the Town of Berryville by the County and a retaliatory withholding of $58K payment to the County by the Town, finally boiled into the public view on Wednesday morning.
Debate might have stayed hidden longer were it not for Berryville Town Manager Keith Dalton’s willingness to bring the issue into the open.
With County Supervisor David Weiss (Buckmarsh) and County Administrator David Ash in place on one side of the table and Dalton, town councilman Allen Kitselman (Ward 2) on the other, and Berryville Mayor Wilson Kirby nearby, Weiss and Ash immediately sought to take the meeting into closed session.
“Under what section of the code do you propose to do that?” Dalton asked in response to Weiss’s request.
“I think that closed session is allowed for negotiations,” Weiss replied.
“Section 2.237.11- a,” said Ash.
But Dalton appeared to want no part of the closed session request.
“I don’t believe that there’s anything here that’s covered by closed session rules so that might be illegal,” Dalton said. “Wanting no part of something illegal, I would have to decline that offer.”
The group then dove into a dispute brought to bear by an opinion memo issued by Joint Administrative Services director Tom Judge urging the Town and County to settle a dispute that began in December, 2008 when the Town first began paying the utility bills for the JGC on behalf of both itself and the County.
Although Dalton says that he sent Ash the County’s $140K share of the bill, the bill was never paid nor, according to Dalton, did the County ever dispute the amount until now.
“The Board of Supervisors has issued a memo through Tom Judge that they do not agree with this bill. Their position is straightforward,” said Weiss to Dalton. “Why does the Town think that they are wrong?”
“Brenda [Bennett, JAS accountant] outlined what the Town had billed and David Ash then identified what the Board of Supervisors was not interested in paying the amount,” Dalton replied. “The County is now saying that it is not responsible for any utility bills from December 8, 2008 through March 3rd, 2009? This is ridiculous!”
Dalton’s incredulity was spurred by Judge’s position that the JGC contractor, Brechbill & Helman, was responsible for utility costs, and not the County of Clarke, through substantial completion of the building which Judge says did not occur until March 3, 2009.
“Work continued In the County wing into March 2009 and the County could not therefore occupy the space. Clarke County did not consent to sharing of building operating costs prior to its occupancy,” Judge said in the memo. “Since the County of Clarke could not occupy the space until substantially complete, and since the County of Clarke was party to a contract requiring the contractor to pay utilities until substantial completion, the County of Clarke should not be responsible for sharing operating costs until March 3, 2009. The County of Clarke was not a party to any side agreement which may have occurred between the Town of Berryville and the Contractor concerning utility costs.”
“No one included us [Clarke County] in the negotiation with Brechbill and Helman,” Ash said to Dalton at the Wednesday meeting. “You sent us a bill and said that you have to pay it. I didn’t know what the deal was regarding the utilities. You guys struck a deal with Brechbill and Helman and now you’re telling me that we owe you money because of it?!”
Ash and Weiss then vigorously disputed why the County should pay for utilities when, according to them, the building could not have been occupied by County until March, 2009 because Brechbill and Helman had not completed their construction work.
“The County assessors were here during that period,” Dalton countered.
As the anger in the room escalated, Supervisor Weiss attempted to strike a compromise position.
“My Board’s instruction to me was to give the Town this document and indicate that this is the Supervisors’s position,” Weiss said. “What’s gotten lost here is the communication and things sat. We’ve had a relatively good working relationship between the Board of Supervisors and the Town Council, but we have hit some bumps. Mistakes have been made but not out malice.”
But with both Kitselman and Kirby both present in the room, Dalton struck a hard line position.
“That may be, but we need full payment of what is owed to us,”Dalton replied. “The amount has been owed since July of 2009 and no one has notified me of a dispute before today.”
“Well how many times did you followup on the invoice,” Ash shot back. “We’ve never talked about this!”
“We’ve continued to invoice the County,” Dalton replied. “Is that not sufficient followup?”
“Have you ever had this discussion with me?” Ash asked.
“Yes!” Dalton responded. “Pay the bill!”
“The Board of Supervisors do not want to pay this bill amount, what would you take on it?” Weiss said interceding.
Dalton responded that it was not his decision to negotiate a compromise payment.
Weiss then turned to the Town’s approximately $58K share of operating costs for 2012, which has not been paid. The current approach for managing the expenses of the Joint Government Center calls for the Town of Berryville to advance cash equal to their estimated annual share at the outset of the fiscal year.
But according to Judge’s memo, the payment due in December, to cover January to June 2012, has never been forwarded, leaving the County of Clarke paying the operating costs of the Town of Berryville with the fiscal year about to close.
“In fairness, the Town of Berryville should immediately send payment for this period, and should immediately forward payment for the first half of FY 13, and thereby disconnect this matter from resolution of the two foregoing matters,” Judge said.
Weiss again asked Dalton to release the $58K currently being withheld but Dalton refused.
“The Town Council hasn’t met on this yet but I’m not comfortable paying this at the moment,” Dalton said. “If the Council says ‘Pay this’ then I will.”
“I’m in full agreement with Keith Dalton,” Kitselman said.
With both sides at an impasse, Supervisor Weiss found the only agreement of the day by suggesting that the issue be passed on the Mayor Kirby and County Supervisor Chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville) to resolve.
“I think that at this point the mayor and the chairman need to get together and see if there’s a less onerous way of solving the problem,” Weiss said. “I had thought that there might be a way for this committee to strike a compromise, but clearly there is not.”