The city of Chattanooga may not have seen the light of Don Lepard's pitch, but the Chattanooga businessman still sees a bright future for his Global Green Lighting.
Lepard lost his biggest contract last year when the city and EPB suspended and ultimately scrapped plans to buy most of the energy-efficiency street lights Global Green Lighting planned to assemble at a Hixson factory.
But following a court hearing on his challenge to EPB on Monday, Lepard said he is still moving forward with a new factory to assemble his energy-efficient lighting systems for other governments.
Earlier this year, Global Green Lighting closed down the Hixson factory that was opened two years ago to great fanfare with Gov. Bill Haslam and promises of up to 250 local jobs.
After the city contract was canceled, Lepard retrenched to to his Soddy-Daisy roots.
But Lepard isn't giving up on his street lighting venture. In fact, he is moving forward with plans for a new and bigger factory in the former Bi-Lo warehouse on Shallowford Road.
Lepard said he is opening a new 63,000-square-foot facility in part of the former Bi-Lo warehouse on Shallowford Road, which developers Steve Dillard and Larry Armour acquired two years ago. Although most of the warehouse is leased to a VW logistics firm, Tranco, Global Lighting is leasing half again as much space as the 40,000-square-foot facility it vacated on Adams Road in Hixson. The new factory includes four production lines rather than the three Lepard set up in Hixson.
"We have full intent of being successful," Lepard said. "The technology we developed and the savings we can offer our customers is real and we plan to continue to market that."
Armour said he hopes Lepard gains other business to bring more jobs and income to Chattanooga.
"I would love to see his business become successful because he has the potential to hire a lot of local people," Armour said.
Lepard said he has a $3.5 million contract to supply 3,500 lights for the University of Alabama and either has landed or is working with several other school systems and small municipalities for other street lighting programs.
Lepard shut down his operation in Hixson after the city of Chattanooga cut short a 3-year plan to buy $18 million of new, programmable LED lights across the city. Global Green Lighting won the Chattanooga contract under then Mayor Ron Littlefield in 2012 to replace 27,000 lights around the city. But only about 6,000 lights were replaced before Mayor Andy Berke decided not to continue with the Lepard's contract.
In pursuing his contract with Chattanooga, Lepard said he discovered that many of the street lights charged to the city by EPB were not operating and that EPB was often overcharging the city because they had misclassified many lights.
Lepard sued EPB this summer on behalf of the city under the False Claims Act, which could grant him treble damages if he is successful.
"I live in Chattanooga and I am a taxpayer in Chattanooga and I see that there has been wrong done to the taxpayers," he said. "It's very clear to me that there has been an overcharge of the city by EPB and that needs to be corrected."
Lepard insists that the overcharge is more than the $1.2 million claimed by city auditor Stan Sewell or the $1.5 million of energy overcharges calculated by EPB's auditors, Mauldin and Jenkins.
But EPB insists that any energy overcharges to the city are largely offset by EPB's undercharging for line losses and the amount of time the lights operate each year.
In its response to Lepard's filing, EPB claims Lepard is suing under a state law that can't be used against a municipal authority and isn't applicable because EPB and the city are the same legal identity. EPB Attorney Rick Hitchcock said Lepard's lawsuit is delaying settlement talks to resolve any billing dispute between EPB and the city.
Hitchcock said Lepard "is attempting the absurdity of having the city sue itself, for the purpose of personally profiting in the process." Hitchcock said the False Claims Act under which Lepard is suing can't be used against EPB and is "contrary to law, improper and should be dismissed."
Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth is scheduled to rule on EPB's motion to dismiss Lepard's lawsuit on Nov. 6. If he does not, the court could order the city utility to turn over years of records requested by Lepard about how EPB has operated the city's street lights.
Lepard pledged Monday if he is successful in his $10 million claim against EPB on behalf of the city he will not personally pocket any of the money.
"Any gain that I get from this lawsuit will be reinvested back into creating jobs in this community and Don Lepard will not personally benefit from this by even one nickel," he said. "We have made a huge investment in honoring the commitment we made to the city to create jobs here and those jobs are lost. So any gain I make will not be for me personally, but to try to rebuild this business and these jobs."
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.
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