Durham News: Opinion

Time to scrutinize some key county spending – Tom Gasparoli

Tom Gasparoli
Tom Gasparoli

Durham County government is expected to be a shrewd steward of the public’s money. But is it?

In particular, how prudent is the county about costs for consulting contracts and rising salaries for ranking full-time personnel?

When it comes to County Manager Wendell Davis and his team, the county ship seems to sail in pretty open water.

Case in point: bidding. Seeking bids for contracts can, as a UNC School of Government report on local governments states, “prevent favoritism, corruption, or fraud” and ensure competition, “which in turn guarantees fair play and reasonable prices.”

Even though a link to that report was sent to me by the county, its administration regularly brushes off bidding opportunities for consultants.

I recently wrote about a no-bid $28,000 contract covering roughly a dozen days of work for a media consultant out of Charlotte. There was no formal time accountability, and the county and the consultant differed on how many hours he worked.

That led to me making more inquiries.

A list of the 31 consulting services contracts over $10,000 let by the county since Davis became manager shows aggregate spending of $1,143,322.

The list included a $100,000 contract for The Institute Economic Development in Durham, and two contracts totaling $158,150 for Phoenix Business Systems.

I asked which consultants secured their contract without competitive bidding. “Public records law does not require the creation of any such list,” said the Public Information Office (PIO) in an email.

So the county wouldn’t tell me.

One management consultant retained by the manager’s office to help with Davis’ elaborate “Managing For Results”(MFR) initiative is Martha Marshall, out of Haymarket, Virginia.

When I contacted her, Marshall wrote that she worked on some projects in the Prince William County, Virginia, government offices with Davis in the mid-1990s. She considers him an “esteemed colleague and friend over the years."

Marshall was retained between August 2014 and May 2016 to conduct work involving training and planning sessions tied to MFR. Records show her firm was paid well over $100,000.

State law does not mandate bidding for these contracts. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

Durham County’s own pocket purchasing guide says goods and services should be procured “to meet their goals and objectives as efficiently and cost effectively as possible.”

The city of Durham promotes this competition of its own volition. Durham puts out a formal request for proposals for services contracts between $10,000 and $50,000, and it requires a formal bid along with advertising for opportunities over $50,000.

Why can’t the county exercise the same care?

I wondered if the Board of Commissioners had been made aware of any contract on the list valued above $20,000. The PIO’s reply: we are not required to look into that.

In turn, I thought it might be enlightening to take a look at salaries these days in the county manager’s office.

According to budget documents and the PIO, personnel costs in county administration have gone up close to $375,000 from fiscal year 2014-15 to now. Davis took over in April 2014.

A Davis-inspired management restructuring created five slots for “general managers,” a term I haven’t heard used in local government. They appear to have subsumed two deputy county manager posts.

Several weeks ago, former Deputy County Manager Marqueta Welton filed a sharply worded federal lawsuit against Davis and the county, alleging retaliation and numerous other violations of her rights.

The new general managers are Jay Gibson, Claudia Hager, Jodi Miller, Gayle Harris, and Deborah Craig Ray. According to the PIO, those officials, all of whom worked for the county prior, received a combined salary increase of $118,153.

Gibson went from $129,780 to $155,150. Hager’s annual pay was upped from $133,960 to $159,805. Miller’s compensation rose from $145,000 to $156,818. .

The salary for GM Gayle Harris increased from $166,795 to $191,814. Deborah Craig Ray had the largest salary hike, $30,191, from $114,809 to $145,000 – a 26 percent raise.

By my calculations, the average salary hike for these five officials in approximately one year’s time was nearly $24,000. Not bad.

It pays handsomely to have been elevated to the upper echelon of Durham County. It's rewarding, too, to be a consultant chosen for a contract without being asked to bid.

This significant spending seems all but unmoored. It shouldn’t be.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.