Rental agreement angers local contractors

ALBANY -- A contract for the management/maintenance of 234 city-owned housing units that has essentially hung in the balance for more than two years appears to be headed for a settlement, despite a local small businessman's claim that his bid on the project was wrongly rejected.

At the Albany City Commission's work session Tuesday, commissioners tentatively agreed to a $379,000 one-year contract that would put the Albany Housing Authority in charge of management and maintenance of 233 housing units plus a community center that are owned by the city.

The Housing Authority has been in charge of the maintenance of the property for the past eight months, according to Assistant City Manager James Taylor, and the authority's short-term work convinced city officials it was the best choice to handle management duties associated with the project as well.

"We've had them do the maintenance piece of this project for the past eight months for a couple of reasons," Taylor said Thursday. "It would give the city a sense of the work they're capable of doing, and it would give the Housing Authority a sense of what's involved in the maintenance and management of the property.

"In that short time, they've been able to cut costs considerably. Last year, when Harry James was in charge of maintenance, the cost was $200,000. Projected costs for this year will be $80,000 less. That's significant savings, and it's money that will go back into the program for things like counseling, food and utilities service."

James, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Dougherty County Commission in 2008, said he should have been awarded the contract to maintain and manage the rental property when the firm that was originally awarded the contract, Vantage Management of Fyffe, Ala., decided not to take the job.

"Even though my original bid was lower, they chose Vantage because the city said I had no management experience," James, owner of James Unlimited General Construction, said Thursday. "Then, when the decision was made to rebid the project and I partnered with a management firm out of Atlanta (JC Enterprises), I came up with the lowest bid.

"My bid was for 11 percent of the income collected, which I figure would have come in somewhere around $130,000. Yet the city is planning to give the contract to the Housing Authority, which is still going to have to sub out the maintenance work."

James stopped short of calling the city's practices unethical, but fellow small business owner Victor Edwards, owner of Edwards Enterprise Services, said the city's failure to award James the contract was a "personality conflict."

"This guy (James) has jumped through every hoop the city set up for him to jump through," said Edwards, a former Dougherty County Commissioner. "But at the end of the day, it comes down to a personality conflict. Some folks at the top level of city government just don't want Harry to get this job.

"(Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization Director) Pinky Modeste could have settled this back when the first vote was taken on the contract, but she was set up to take the fall by the city. We told her that the city would want to rebid the project, but when they asked her for her opinion, all she had to do was say that the job should go to Harry. She recommended the rebid."

Modeste, who now is a county employee, refused to talk about the project.

"I'm no longer involved with the city, so I have no comment on this matter," she said. "When I left (her former position), the matter had not been settled."

Albany Mayor Willie Adams deferred to the city manager's office when asked about the pending vote on the maintenance/management of the rental property.

"It's my understanding that there are still some hoops that have to be jumped through before this issue is settled," he said. "The city manager's office is better equipped to discuss those at this time."

Calls seeking comment from City Commissioners Dorothy Hubbard and Tommie Postell had not been returned by press time.

Albany-Dougherty Community and Economic Development Director Latoya Cutts was not available for comment Thursday, but Deputy Director Shelena Hawkins said prior decisions on the project had been based on cost analyses.

"The previous director of this office (Jennifer Clark) made her recommendations based on cost analysis and the capabilities of those involved," Hawkins said. "Now that the Housing Authority has been involved in this project for a period of time, we certainly think they're capable of doing the job. It's just a move that makes sense for us.

"And even though they're doing the maintenance for us now, that doesn't mean there won't be opportunities for small and minority-owned businesses to continue to do some work on the project."

After originally being approved as manager of the project, Vantage backed out when the City Commission, in an unusual twist at its Oct. 23, 2007, meeting, decided to rescind the vote and table the matter to see if the company would accept James as a partner on the project.

"The issue at that time had nothing to do with minority contractors; it became such a political issue that Vantage decided they didn't want to get involved," Taylor said. "The city chose to look at another process. There had been a lot of money spent on maintenance on that project, and we felt the taxpayers would be better served if we looked at someone with managerial experience to do this.

"Mr. James has no experience managing rental property. It's likely that, while the Housing Authority will be doing most of the maintenance in-house, there will still be projects where small contractors are used. But the ultimate goal is to cut those costs so that there is more money available to put into other elements of the program."

Local contractors say they're having trouble buying the contention that James' inexperience cost him the bid on the project.

"They told (minority contractors and small business owners) that we would have more opportunities if we followed the guidelines that were laid out for us," James said. "I did that. I've never asked to be judged as a 'minority contractor;' I want to be judged on the merits of my work as a contractor. I think I can put my work up against anyone's.

"I'm not pointing fingers here. I'm just disappointed. This was an opportunity for the city to prove that it was serious about involving small businesses. They didn't do that. But, like they have twice in the past, if things don't get done and they need to be bailed out, that's when they call on me. I've proved myself."

That, Edwards said, should have been enough.

"This is not a black cause, it's a business cause," he said. "The city was in a position to be involved in a historical moment, but they chose for whatever reason not to be. And at some point, they've got to quit giving our tax dollars to businesses that have no vested interest in the city."