HANCOCK COUNTY – Officials tabled entering into a partnership with an economic development team after another leader questioned whether the initiative was publicized correctly and raised conflict-of-interest concerns.
The Hancock County Board of Commissioners had a public hearing this week on entering into a public-private agreement with Hancock County Development Partners LLC. The group is made up of professionals with BW Development, GM Development, Surge Development, BW Construction, RQAW, American Structurepoint, Stifel and Avenew.
Their proposal outlines leading the county through developing infrastructure for a future I-70 interchange at CR 200W, evaluating infrastructure and other needs in Buck Creek Township, and helping facilitate a vocational and adult education facility.
If approved, Hancock County Development Partners would commence a scoping period to evaluate what kinds of projects the county may want to pursue and fund. The group proposes entering into a build-operate-transfer agreement for financing any projects, through which the group would carry out the work before transferring ownership to the county.
Keely Butrum, a Hancock County Council member, noted during the public hearing that the request for proposals and qualifications for the partnership states it would be published in its entirety in a local newspaper no later than May 23 and again between May 30 and June 15.
The county advertised the request in the Daily Reporter on May 27 and June 3. Both notices summarized the request and did not include it in its entirety, but indicated proposal documents were available on the board of commissioners’ web page.
“I also took issue with the fact that we only have one proposal for such a large project, and it appears to be tailor-made,” Butrum said.
She went on to refer to a passage in Hancock County Development Partners’ proposal that reads, “Our team has been working diligently behind the scenes for many months to discuss and identify project opportunities for the county’s development project.”
“And I just feel like on such a large project that provides so much guidance for a huge portion of the county that we should, for the benefit of taxpayers, want that process to be competitive and be comparing not only prices, but ideas and approaches,” Butrum said.
County commissioners John Jessup and Marc Huber noted Hancock County Development Partners was the only group to respond to the request.
“We can’t force somebody to bid it,” Huber said. “This was put out publicly. This was the only group that provided a proposal.”
Butrum also referred to an unsigned letter from a committee for the request for proposals and qualifications, or RFPQ, for the initiative that recommends Hancock County Development Partners’ proposal to the board of commissioners. That committee is made up of the commissioners, however.
“So I guess the three commissioners are recommending to the three commissioners that they proceed,” she said.
A proposed resolution awarding an agreement with Hancock County Development Partners states the president of the board of commissioners, a role currently held by Jessup, would negotiate with the group. Butrum asked that that power not be consolidated to one person.
“The whole point of having three commissioners is so the constituents have multiple representatives to hash through ideas,” she said.
Jessup dismissed the criticisms about the commissioners making up the RFPQ committee and the president serving as sole negotiator, telling the Daily Reporter that those measures are outlined in the state’s build-operate-transfer statute. He likened the committee to the county’s regional water and sewer district board, which is also made up of the commissioners and makes recommendations to themselves.
“It’s the way that laws are written,” he said.
Scott Benkie, the commissioners’ lawyer, told the Daily Reporter that the RFPQ committee doesn’t have to be made up solely of the commissioners.
“It could potentially have a different membership configuration, but I think the reason it’s typically the commissioners is they’re the ones that have to send out the RFPQs,” Benkie said.
Butrum also noted BW Construction, which is part of Hancock County Development Partners and has been involved in plans to renovate the county’s former jail, has a paid relationship with Jessup.
“I’ve disclosed that,” Jessup said at the hearing. “My company does contract work for BW Construction, but I have never and never would touch a county project with a 10-foot pole. I have no pecuniary interest in any of that.”
Jessup filed a conflict-of-interest disclosure statement with the state earlier this year reporting his wife’s business, Ace’s 1st Cleaning Services, performs contract work for BW Construction. The statement adds Ace’s 1st does not perform work on projects contracted by Hancock County government.
Jessup told the Daily Reporter that he works for his wife’s business, which provides residential, commercial and construction cleaning services, and that the business contracts him to work with BW Construction as a construction superintendent.
Chris King, owner of Surge Development and a member of Hancock County Development Partners, said the team would incorporate studies the county has already commissioned into its work. Butrum noted the county council appropriated $150,000 to the commissioners for RQAW, also part of Hancock County Development Partners, to conduct a study on water and wastewater.
Bill Spalding, a county commissioner, moved to table consideration of entering into an agreement with Hancock County Development Partners until state officials can evaluate any potential conflicts of interest and to look further into whether the initiative was properly advertised.
Spalding also said he’d be in favor of asking members of Hancock County Development Partners to give a presentation on their proposal during an evening so that it would be more convenient for the public to attend.
Several Hancock County residents provided comments during the public hearing, including a request for input from local sources into determining Buck Creek Township’s needs rather than just professionals with firms outside the county. Some also criticized the overall way the commissioners have approached development in the western part of the county, which has drawn dozens of large buildings designed for logistics purposes to former farmland over the past several years.
“Why does everyone on the western edge have to be impacted by all this development that simply makes all of our lives more difficult?” said Lisa Bayne.