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Posted on Wednesday, November 22, 2023 at 7:55 am

Commission debates pay of owner rep


Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners Meeting brought up concerns about possible overspending for the county’s owner representative Jeff Sweeney.

This was brought before the Commission while they voted on the Board of Education Amendment No. 1 and the request to use $12,000 as a retainer fee reimbursement and move $17,000 from one line item for the Thomas Magnet addition to serve as a supervising fee.

“I’m just having a little heartburn with this, and the fact that as a commissioner we were paying these monies out and we didn’t know,” said Commissioner Diane Neeley, who brought up the issue and said the amendment should not be passed.

The owner rep, in this case, is an employee of the county. Essentially, Sweeney is representing the owner, that is, the county, during major construction projects.

The Post spoke with Sweeney via phone who explained, “My job is to represent the county and the school and make sure we are getting what we are paying for, value engineering every structure that is erected in Bedford County so that way we have buildings that are 40, 50 year-old buildings. We build them within budget and we don’t have cost over-runs.”

“He doesn’t answer to the architect or the construction manager. He actually polices both of them,” said Finance director Robert Daniel. In this way, he “saves the county money” by identifying problems prior and during construction.

Bedford County Mayor Chad Graham said, “The sweet spot in this concept is in the front end when you’re designing it, this is where your chance to save and realize you’re saving and then catching things that aren’t done correctly, such as the floor, the roof, the other issues.”

“I’m not disputing the fact that it has the ability to save money,” said Neeley. “But I have concerns that we have processes in place that we never followed and the cost savings doesn’t mean anything if we’re turning it around and paying it as a salary to somebody.”

So how does the owner rep get paid?

According to Daniel, this position gets payed through the retainer fee (essentially a down payment) and then a percent of the larger projects that are over $100,000. That percentage was agreed to be 0.85% for those over $100,000 (this is under the normal percentage of a construction manager who usually gets around 5%).

At 0.85% for the county’s current projects — including Cartwright Elementary, Liberty School’s addition, Juvenile Detention, and Thomas Magnet’s addition — the owner rep could make a possible $483,000, according to Neeley’s calculations.

“…Of our hard-earned taxpayers’ dollars,” Neeley added.

“It looks like Mr. Sweeney is the one that’s benefiting more than anybody else in the county,” said Commissioner Drew Hooker. “We, just here last year, the previous commission, raised taxes to pay firefighters and EMS and all of our different workers across the county because we weren’t paying them enough. Well, now we figured out where part of the money is going.”

“That’s a little bit interesting in how you present that,” said Graham, responding to Hooker.

When asked by the Post for comment, Sweeney explained there’s a big difference between and owner’s rep and a construction manager.

“The owner’s rep is involved from conception through completion, where a construction manager is only involved during the construction process,” he said. Unlike an owner’s rep, a construction manager is not involved in pre-construction meetings that value engineering.

This means an owner’s rep is involved with a project sometimes for years on end and is involved with redesigning, concept planning, geo-tech, meeting with engineers and the utility district, just to name a few things done prior to construction. The position also approves work orders and change orders.

For example, the new Juvenile Detention Center Facility was being conceptualized beginning March 2020. It’s roughly a $5 million structure and will be completed by early 2025.

“On that structure, I will be paid about $42,000,” said Sweeney. “So that’s four and half years of work into a project for $42,000.” (To clarify, 0.85% of $5 million is $42,500).

“I think they’re thinking it’s an annual fee. It’s actually from the time we begin working the project until it’s completed,” said Sweeney.

Regarding the $483,000 figure Neeley calculated, Sweeney said, “I don’t know where she came up with that number. I think they’re taking some of the schools in totality.”

Sweeney said for the Thomas Magnet School addition — which they’ve been working on since May — he will be making about $20,000.

“A lot of these numbers, I haven’t charged anything and we’re halfway into the project. And any project under $100,000, I’m not paid anything, like tearing down of the old jail,” said Sweeney.

But as an employee, what about a yearly salary?

During Tuesday’s meeting, Neeley, who said she has questioned this owner rep position before, recalled how in a December 2022 finance meeting she asked how and how much the owner rep Sweeney is being paid, which Daniel stated was $2,400 a month.

But she said she needed clarification: is the owner rep being paid $2,400 a month ($28,000 a year), or $24,000 a year ($12,000 from the county and $12,000 from the school system)?

“If you’re an employee then there should be a salary with appropriate withholdings. But if you’re a contracted service, you should receive retainers and possibly percentage points. So at this point I think we need clarification,” said Neeley.

When given a chance to respond, Daniel said, “He does get a retainer. The school board agreed to pay half of that retainer, which is $24,000 for the year. Yes, if you did $2,400 last year, it would add up to $28,000, but that was revised to $24,000.

Again, “He is receiving 0.85% of the contract and he gave us a projected amount,” said Daniel.

“I think the finance director (Daniel) is very detailed. I don’t think our county has ever had an issue with the state on our audits,” said Sweeney. “I’m excited where the county’s moving. I think we’ve made great strides to improve our team and hold people accountable and making sure we are good stewards of the tax payer’s money.”

After the debate, the motion to approve of the amendment carried with 13 ayes, four noes, and two passes.

Those voting yes were: Bill Anderson, Jason Boyette, Janice Brothers, Biff Farrar, Scott Johnson, Sylvia Pinson, Julie Sanders, Tony Smith, Adam Thomas, Mark Thomas, Greg Vick, and Linda Yockey.

Voting no were: Drew Hooker, Eric Maddox, Diane Neeley, and Troy Thompson.

John Boutwell and Anita Epperson both passed on voting, saying they wanted more information.