The Hamilton County Commission voted Wednesday against hiring a local builder for a $20 million expansion project at the Silverdale Correctional Facility, citing a lack of experience.
During a regular business meeting, the commission voted 6-3 against awarding the $20 million bid to KTM Builders LLC of Chattanooga after some commissioners voiced concerns about the company's experience with large and related projects.
After Commissioner Tim Boyd, an experienced contractor, expressed his concerns with the local company's lack of experience in security and corrections construction last week, he doubled down Wednesday, directly questioning the company's qualifications to take on the expensive, specialized project.
"They have never built anything but big box retail and that's the simplest commercial construction that there is," Boyd said after the meeting. "You don't get any simpler than four cinder block walls and a concrete slab."
The project, approved by the commission in 2017, would put just over $20 million into improvements at the Silverdale facility, just as the county begins to assume control of the facility and close its other jail in downtown Chattanooga.
Boyd added Wednesday that the company's largest project, according to documents provided by KTM directly, was roughly $3 million.
"That's a way, way different project than building hospitals, schools, prisons, libraries, all that kind of stuff," he said, noting the difference in value between a retail store and a "major institutional" build. "I understand growing your company and making a step forward, we all understand that. But to go from an average build of $1.4 million to a $20 million job? No. That ain't the way you play the game."
Boyd was ultimately in the majority, with Commissioner Warren Mackey suggesting the commission hire an outside consultant to monitor the sheriff's office and general government's existing process as they seek a new developer.
"Because we're going to spend so much money, Mr. Chairman and members of the commission, I'm going to be reluctant," Mackey said. "Unless we have a consultant that is going to represent our interests and guide the process, it's going to be hard for me to be comfortable with all of this."
Sheriff Jim Hammond, whose office presented the resolution and oversees the facilities, said he was not expecting the pushback.
"I was surprised. Generally, when someone puts in a resolution, like I did here, we would only submit the resume, and we depend on the professionals in the government to OK the person," Hammond said after the meeting. "In this case, a bid went out for anybody to bid on it, there were a number of bidders, and the [office of engineering] and [purchasing department], they were the ones in general government and had to go through all the due diligence to make sure that everybody who applied met the standards."
Hammond wasn't the only person surprised by the meeting.
Mark Kuebler, owner of KTM Builders, called in to the public comment section of the meeting after his company had been scrutinized for the better part of an hour by the commission and the resolution failed, having not been invited to participate in the discussion about the contract.
"I do appreciate the vetting that Hamilton County went through with us, but at the same time, I wish I would have had the opportunity to address your concerns, the commissioners' concerns, prior to the vote today," he said. "I do have a very experienced staff with history of $20 million projects. Just because KTM hasn't built a $20 million project doesn't mean that we couldn't handle the facility."
Kuebler was only given two minutes to speak, as a public commenter, rather than being recognized as a developer at the time of the resolution.
The commission may now either reopen the failed resolution, giving Kuebler another shot at the contract, or re-bid the contract, choosing from other developers.
$10 million transition
In the same meeting, Hammond introduced a separate $10 million modular housing project at the jail to help with the transition between facilities and operations at Silverdale.
While Hammond has repeatedly said the transition to merge the buildings and take over CoreCivic's operational duties at Silverdale would be cost neutral, he and other representatives of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office surprised commissioners Wednesday by describing roughly $10 million in capital expenses to aid in the transition.
"We did not know about that. And I had never seen the drawing that was thrown up on the screen," Boyd said of plans for the project displayed at the meeting. "And I don't know how much of this $10 million is going to be spent on this modular housing ... that one caught everyone off guard a little bit; it caught me completely off guard."
Hammond said discussions of the additional $10 million began several months ago when the county went to the bond market for other capital expenses.
"We spoke to the mayor about setting aside $10 million of that to help with the new jail," Hammond said.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger explained that the money was not yet set in stone, but was being considered for one of several projects that could be funded by upcoming bond money.
"That's one of the many capital projects that's on the list, and one of the more expensive ones, obviously, but yeah it's certainly one of the things under consideration," Coppinger said Wednesday afternoon. "The money has to be appropriated by the commission, always has been that way."
The money, as described Wednesday, would be spent on establishing auxiliary modular housing for around 320 additional inmates at Silverdale. The building would immediately serve to get inmates out of the downtown facility while the $20 million in permanent improvements are made to the Silverdale facility. The dormitory-style housing could then last 20-30 years, officials said.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.