County moves forward with Annex project in closed-door meeting

Amanda Lubinski/Staff Photo

Despite public opposition to the project, the Clay County Commission is moving ahead with a new annex after hiring construction management firm Project Advocates Tuesday, Nov. 26, to oversee the work. Opponents of the project say a new facility is a waste of taxpayer dollars and that the current Annex location, 1901 NE 48th St. in Kansas City, which houses satellite locations for the county assessor and collector as seen here, could be remodeled and updated for the county’s growing needs.

CLAY COUNTY — A majority of Clay County commissioners pushed forward on a new Annex building by hiring a project manager in a closed-door meeting ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. While the firm was selected, commissioners said a contract has yet to be finalized.

Details on how firm selections were narrowed and expected contract costs have yet to be released. Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte and Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway each said this week they were not sure what they could say publicly as the selection process was complete but the contract had not been executed.

Missouri’s Sunshine Law, or open records law, allows contract negotiations and specifications for competitive bidding to take place or be discussed behind closed doors but states once specifications are approved by the governing body or published for bid, they become public information. Once contracts are executed, they too become public documents, according to the Sunshine Law. As the contract has not been executed, negotiation details can remain closed.

The executive session to select the firm was held Nov. 26.

According to Nolte, in that executive meeting, Ridgeway and Western Commissioner Gene Owen outvoted him to select Project Advocates of Omaha, Nebraska, to oversee construction of a new Annex.

“A competitive selection process was initiated to choose a project manager that is qualified to assist the county in managing the planning, development, design and construction of the Annex in a timely and economical manner,” states a county press release. According to the release, the selected project manager will report directly to the commission and act as the county’s representative on the project.

Nolte did say firms who bid on the construction management project were narrowed by administration staff, with six to eight firms brought before the commission for final consideration and selection.

While he voted against selection of a firm, saying the entire project is ill-advised and was entered into without enough thought or consideration of taxpayers who spoke out against the project, Nolte said of the management firms presented to commissioners, Project Advocates seemed reputable.

Because of the amount of alternatives considered, however, Nolte said he could not say if the firm was the low bidder. Nolte added the contract, once signed, will cost the county an estimated $300,000.

The county Annex facility has been mired in controversy since discussions of the project and land deal were considered earlier this year. Dozens of residents voiced opposition to the project, saying the county doesn’t need a new Annex, that construction of a new facility is a waste of taxpayer dollars and that the current Annex location, 1901 NE 48th St. in Kansas City, could be remodeled and updated for the county’s growing needs.

This summer, County Auditor Victor Hurlbert told commissioners he believed the county’s contract to buy the land for the new facility at the intersection of Missouri Highway 152 and North Brighton Avenue in Kansas City was nonbinding as his office didn’t certify the associated expenditures.

County Treasurer Bob Nance said his office would not release payment disbursements without the auditor’s certification.

On Dec. 2, Hurlbert said he spoke with the county’s legal counsel related to the Annex project and was told because funds for the project and other county updates were done as certificates of participation, they do not have to go to the auditor’s office for certification.

Hurlbert contends county administrators and the finance department have circumvented his and the treasurer’s office when it comes to expenses related to COP projects.

“They’ve set up a system via the county finance department and administration where these invoices for COP projects like the Annex do not go through our offices for certification like all other accounts payable do. We would absolutely take a closer look at things, but unfortunately, with the system they set up, we can’t,” said Hurlbert.

A call to the county’s bond counsel firm by the Courier-Tribune was not returned.

Treasurer Bob Nance said disbursements related to COP projects are now being made through the finance department and his office doesn’t see them until after they are made.

“We just see things after they’ve done things,” he said.

While listings of county expenditures for 2019 through September are posted on the county’s transparency portal, it is not immediately clear which accounting reports are associated with the Annex project. Requests for clarification from the county have yet to be returned.

Managing Editor Amanda Lubinski can be reached at amanda.lubinski@mycouriertribune.com or 903-6001.