Victoria County commissioners voted unanimously to exempt themselves from state bidding laws because of the emergency created by Hurricane Harvey, County Judge Ben Zeller said Tuesday.
His comments came during a Victoria Economic Development Corporation partnership meeting that focused on concerns raised by two airport commissioners about how and why Victoria Regional Airport insurance money was spent after Hurricane Harvey struck Aug. 25, 2017.
At their June 27 meeting, airport commission chairman Trey Ruschhaupt and commissioner Dennis Patillo wanted to know why the airport director and other commissioners were told “to stay out” of the decision-making process; why one Kansas-based company handled both remediation and repairs at the airport; why the work did not go through the bidding process; why the invoices for completed work were void of detail; and why more than $500,000 could not be attributed to specific repairs at all.
A main point of concern at the airport commissioners’ meeting was about why the Virtus Group, a Kansas company now called the Commercial Restoration Company, handled both remediation and repairs at the airport and why the work did not go through the bidding process required by law.
At the VEDC partnership meeting Tuesday, Zeller said county commissioners voted unanimously Sept. 11, 2017, to hire the Virtus Group, and then the following week voted unanimously again to hire the company to continue to do the repairs.
Virtus officials have not returned calls for comment.
Zeller said the work, which has totaled $2.6 million to date, did not go out for bid because the county was acting under an exemption that allows emergency repairs without the usual bidding process.
“The notion that we bypassed bid laws is ridiculous,” he said. “Like I said, a few minutes on the internet researching that would’ve answered that question, which to some appears to be a great mystery, and it’s really quite simple.”
But Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns, who said previously that he thought the emergency bidding exemption was “abused,” repeated that concern during and after the VEDC meeting. Although the court did vote to hire the Virtus Group while using the emergency exemption, he said, the company should have done only the emergency repairs, which “doesn’t include tearing down buildings and the additional work that followed.”
“You’ve got to protect local taxpayers, and we should’ve given them the chance,” he said, “because most of that work was not life-threatening work that needed to be done right away.”
Airport commissioner Buddy Billups also spoke during the partnership meeting and criticized the Sunday Victoria Advocate article about the June 27 meeting. “Suggestions within the article, in my opinion, were incomplete, maybe misleading,” he said. Billups was at the commissioners’ June meeting, but he didn’t speak during the conversation about Virtus because he “really had no concerns.”
“So I guess I’ll just tell you, there was a spirited discussion on ‘maybe we should’ve done this, how could we have handled this different.’ … That’s hindsight, two years ago,” Billups said. “We wanted some answers, and I’m confident we’ll get the answers.”
An additional point of concern that arose at the airport commissioners’ June meeting was about $400,000 of insurance money that went into repairing the officers’ club at the airport. Airport commissioners had recommended not repairing the building, but Zeller said county commissioners chose to invest in the venue because of its historical and community value.
During the June meeting, airport director Lenny Llerena said the officers’ club had brought in only $4,000 annually in rental use and it would take many years to pay off a $400,000 repair bill even if the rental revenue could somehow be brought up to $10,000 annually.
During the VEDC meeting, however, Zeller said he had new projections from Llerena showing the venue could generate $40,000 to $50,000 a year in rental income, making it “one of the better income-producing assets out at the airport.”
“I think the real causality in all this is the folks who picked up the paper thinking they were getting news but were left with a lot of inaccuracies that cast a very incorrect light on the relationship between the airport and our county,” Zeller said.
Airport commissioner Dennis Patillo, who was not at the VEDC partnership meeting, said later Tuesday that he wanted to reiterate “there was never an intent to accuse anyone of anything” and that the questions he asked during the June meeting were those he would ask his own employees regarding “any substantial business transaction, as this was.”
Burns, who also attended the June airport commission meeting, said he thought the information in Sunday’s article was correct and fair.
“I thought the way the Advocate expressed our concerns, which they got off the tape of the meeting, was accurate and just fine,” he said. “I don’t think there was any fraud or any theft in all of this, and that’s not what the article said, and I still stand behind that the airport commission and manager should have run the operation.”
The county commissioners and airport commissioners have scheduled a joint meeting Monday, during the county commissioners’ weekly meeting, to discuss any concerns.
“It doesn’t make sense how everything was done,” Burns said, “and we deserve answers about these concerns.”