Over Harris’ objection, Commission votes to serve as USDA grantee for Ace Hardware project

Published 9:06 am Thursday, May 12, 2016

 

By Fred Guarino

The Lowndes County Commission voted to support Joe Bell Jr. of Bell Ventures LLC by applying as the grantee for a USDA Rural Business Development Grant for an Ace Hardware Project at no cost to the county, Monday, but not without controversy.

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Commissioner Robert Harris was the only member of the commission to vote against the grant action, citing the need for specific paperwork showing a commitment from Ace Hardware to locate in Hayneville.

Harris also cited what he said seemed like “straight out collusion” on the part of the commission after he learned that a copy of the commission’s minutes had been sent to Joe Bell Sr. prior to the commission voting to approve them.

Regarding the USDA grant, Joe Bell Jr. wrote in an email to Commission Chairman Carnell McAlpine that a USDA grant being sought is designed to support small and emerging businesses in communities. He stated in the email that the amount of the grant would be based on select retail fixtures and equipment startup costs.

Commission Administrator Jackie Thomas said after checking further, the amount Bell is seeking is $125,000.

According to the email from Joe Bell Jr. read to the commission by Thomas, “The project supports the county economic growth efforts by retaining jobs and creating new jobs.” And, “Increasing retail trade employment in our community could have a major impact on economic growth. As the only retail hardware store within 30 miles radius, the project will help better meet the retail hardware demands of nearly 11,000 county residents.”

Thomas told the commission that it was the grantee for medical equipment for doctors’ offices at the Hayneville Plaza when it was owned by Karl Bell.

After asking commissioners if they were aware of any letter of commitment from Ace Hardware to locate in Hayneville or a project agreement from any source, Harris said, “So, there is nothing that we have before us or ever had before us that says they (Ace Hardware) are going to be here in Hayneville at that particular location.”

He said the commission may be “putting the cart before the horse.”

Harris said that while he was not trying to stop any business,  “These are the steps that are normally taken whenever we do things like that… there is a project agreement, a letter of commitment that has come from the prospect.”

He said, “I think it would be out of order or out of line if we did it prior to that.”

Commissioner Dickson Farrior moved Bell’s request for the commission to the be the grantee for a USDA grant on behalf of Bell Ventures LLC pending that all necessary paperwork is filed on behalf of the project.

The Signal was unable to reach Joe Bell Jr., but was able to contact Joe Bell Sr.

Bell said, “We we’ve been working with Ace for probably a year now. Total commitment doesn’t come until we’ve got everything in place.”

However, he said, a letter of support from Ace Hardware was sent to the County Commission Office Tuesday morning “to confirm that we are definitely working with them, trying to get everything in place.”

He said things just haven’t gotten to the point to get full commitment from Ace at this point. He said engineering and architecting, designing of the building must be done.

However, Bell said, “Yes, we’ve got verbal commitment from Ace, but we have not signed a contract yet.”

As to the locating the Ace Hardware at the Hayneville Plaza location, Bell said, “That’s where we’re going to locate at.”

Thomas told the Signal that the commission will actually be the grant recipient. She explained that Bell Ventures LLC will purchase those items listed in the grant, and the commission will use the grant funds to pay for them.

She also confirmed that grant will be for fixtures to go into a Ace Hardware Store for which “the plan”” is to be located at the Hayneville Plaza location.

Harris voted “no” while Commissioners Joseph Barganier, Brenson Crenshaw,  Farrior and McAlpine all voted, “Yes.”

Following the vote on the grant, Harris questioned commission minutes being sent to Joe Bell Sr. Thomas told Harris that “unofficial” minutes are sent upon request, but the minutes do not become official until the commission votes to approve them.

When Harris said the minutes sent to Bell had nothing on them to indicate they were not official, Thomas said that was because she did not send them out.

She later informed the Signal that she learned the unofficial minutes had been sent out by her clerk Geraldine Ingram by accident and that she would inform Harris that it was accidental.

She told the commission during the meeting that she would inform Ingram, “from now on, if anyone asks for minutes that have not been approved, she need to get with me first.”

Harris told the commission, “It seems like this is straight outright collusion with this County Commission and Joe Bell. And I find it to be a conflict of interest that what we are doing because of all the collusion that is taking place during this particular time. And I just want to make sure that I separate myself from that  because it’s unethical and it shouldn’t be taking place because we are picking winners and losers , and we should not being doing that. ”

McAlpine said of Harris’ comment, “I really don’t know what he meant by that. I think that we try to do the right thing for all of our citizens. And there is no personal issue that exists as far as I know with Mr. Bell and any of the commissioners. I don’t know what Robert (Harris) is talking about.”

In other matters, the commission:

*Heard a request from David Hutchison, executive director of the Lowndes County Economic Development Commission, to hire a consultant firm for work in Lowndes County to assist him at a cost of $65,452.

No action was taken on this request Monday as Hutchison gave the commission until July to give him an answer.

*Signed a revised resolution for the Lowndes County 79 federal aid paving project.

*Reaffirmed without vote that Sheriff John Williams is responsible for courthouse security.

*Approved the purchase of a tractor and right-way-cutter if funds are available.

*Approved an appropriation to Dollars for Scholars in the amount of $1,500.

*Approved minutes with correction.

*Approved payment of invoices.