CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – The builder of Horry County’s five new schools, Robbie Ferris, faced a room full of parents and teachers in April 2016 and some of them questioned whether plans for new schools had been developed in secret. Ferris, who has called the process transparent, was in Robeson County, North Carolina, and trying to close a $1.4 billion deal to build schools and consolidate the county’s school district.
But aside from the skeptical parents, state law stood in the way. Records show a North Carolina state senator tried as recently as this spring to change the law and his company received nearly $800,000 worth of work on First Floor’s projects in Horry County. The legislation ultimately failed; Ferris and the general contractor point to that and the timing of the contracts as proof there’s no connection between the legislation and the work.
When Horry County’s school board ignored the advice of its consultant and gave First Floor a $220 million contract for five new schools, it justified the decision because, among other things, First Floor Energy Positive “demonstrated an impressive commitment to our local economy by committing to the hiring of approximately 70% of its workforce from local sources.” First Floor’s proposal said “50-60% of our subcontractors are local to Horry County.”
Horry County Schools doesn’t know whether First Floor followed through on the commitment, an email from district spokesperson Teal Britton indicates. Aside from an unsubstantiated list of “local” companies working on the project, the district doesn’t have documentation “that indicates the subcontractors for the five new schools,” according to Britton. Ferris now calls the commitment “just a goal” for the company that the district didn’t require.
A local landscaping company questioned the local commitment in February. Samuel Johnson, a project manager and estimator at Seed Slingers in Galivants Ferry, filed a request to speak in front of the school board. Seed Slingers had already done some “pre-bid” work on the new schools and put prices together, according to the request.
“Now with no discussion, the General Contractor is requesting to pull two schools from the local contractor with local workers in order to give it to a NC Company owned by a Senator that is pulling rank and file,” Johnson wrote in his request. “The pressure is being applied to have it pulled so that the [general contractor] can give it to the NC firm.” Johnson ended his note by saying “We need help and we need answers.”
Johnson was placed on the agenda for the next regular board meeting about a month later. No one came forward when his name was called. Johnson declined to answer questions for this story and only said Seed Slingers looked forward to working with the contractor and Horry County Schools “for a successful project.”
Seed Slingers received about $400,000 worth of work on one school after he complained and submitted the lowest bid, according to a document provided by First Floor. Johnson was also nominated to the Horry County Solid Waste Authority Board of Directors by Horry County Councilman Al Allen, whose wife Shanda Allen serves on the school board, in April. Horry County Council approved the nomination on Tuesday night. Neither Al Allen nor Shanda Allen responded to an email asking about the circumstances of the nomination. Johnson has previously served on two other county boards, according to an application signed by Al Allen for Johnson’s nomination.
New questions from district staff
Horry County Schools staff asked Metcon, a contractor working with First Floor on the new schools, for the landscaping bids on the same day Johnson sent a complaint to the school district. The district repeated the request for weeks and, when the bids were finally turned over, the bids raised more questions.
Mark Wolfe, the district’s executive director of facilities, wanted to know why Cardinal Landscaping was allowed to bid for all of the schools’ landscaping when other companies weren’t allowed to, an email shows. Cardinal Landscaping, a company in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is owned by North Carolina Senator Wesley Meredith.
Ryan Parker, a project manager for Metcon, said he asked Cardinal Landscaping for the bids because he trusted “their pricing and competence,” according to emails obtained by News13. Parker claimed allowing Cardinal Landscaping to bid on all of the projects would give a “baseline in knowing where the numbers shook out.” Wolfe said he didn’t understand the explanation because it seemed logical to let all of the companies bid on all of the schools.
Parker also argued Cardinal Landscaping was the only company that could handle more than two jobs. “I don’t agree with the implication that the bids were not competitive,” Parker wrote. “Nothing was bid shopped.”
Metcon eventually allowed all of the companies to bid on all of the jobs to “remove any questions previously posed by [Horry County Schools],” Ferris said in a statement to News13.
Cardinal Landscaping ended up with landscaping jobs for two schools and $773,944 worth of work after submitting the lowest bids for the projects, according to documents provided by First Floor.
“A collection of construction interests” push a bill
Senator Wesley Meredith attracted the attention of North Carolina’s then-state treasurer as his bill moved through the Senate in 2016, around the same time Robbie Ferris was trying to sell his $1.4 billion plan to Robeson County. The legislation would’ve allowed school districts to pay for school buildings by using money saved through consolidation; money traditionally spent on staff and operations could be used for building payments.
Treasurer Janet Cowell wrote a letter to state lawmakers in June 2016 and urged them to oppose the bill, which she linked to Ferris’ plan for Robeson County.
“This legislation would allow private developers to be paid before essential county services, even in times of emergencies or economic distress,” Cowell wrote. In Robeson County, she said the per capita debt would increase by 2,224%, from $202 to $4,694, under Ferris’ plan.
Ferris, owner of First Floor Energy Positive, wanted to close 30 schools in Robeson County, build 14 new schools, and renovate five others. Ferris claimed fewer schools would create savings, which would help pay for the buildings through a long-term lease agreement.
Ferris pitched the bill in a letter to the editor for The News & Observer, a newspaper in Raleigh, calling the legislation “a pathway to transforming rural North Carolina.” Ferris likely wouldn’t get the $1.4 billion job in Robeson County, one of the poorest counties in the state, without it.
The News & Observer echoed the treasurer’s concerns in its own editorial. The paper’s reporting described “a collection of construction interests” pushing the bill, including Robbie Ferris and a lobbying group run by Metcon president Aaron Thomas, which is now working on Horry County’s five new schools alongside First Floor Energy Positive.
Meredith’s company hadn’t yet won any bids on Horry County’s new schools, but the paper was already questioning his motive to sponsor the bill. It claimed he had previously won work as a Metcon subcontractor. “Meredith said he isn’t pushing the bill to benefit his company,” the paper wrote.
The bill failed later in summer 2016 and Ferris’ plan for Robeson County didn’t move forward. Meredith introduced similar legislation with more protections for school districts and school funding in March 2017 during the bidding process for landscaping at Horry County’s new schools.
The legislation failed again and, according to Metcon president Aaron Thomas, Cardinal Landscaping won the jobs afterwards. “Obviously, I couldn’t reward him for moving legislation for me because it didn’t move,” Thomas said. “The guy files a bill and it doesn’t move at all. I don’t understand how that correlates.”
Meredith didn’t respond to an email from News13 asking about the legislation and his company’s work in Horry County.
Ferris acknowledged First Floor would’ve benefited from the legislation. However, he told News13 it’s not fair to “make a relationship” between Senator Meredith’s legislation and Cardinal Landscaping’s work on Horry County’s five schools. “The legislation that Senator Meredith sponsored was Senator Meredith’s legislation,” Ferris said. “So you have to be 100-percent clear about that.”
Ferris described Meredith as “an advocate for rural communities” and “a legitimate contractor who does this kind of work.” Meredith’s company submitted the lowest bid on the jobs it received, according to Ferris.
When asked about the appearance of giving work to the senator, Ferris said, “I didn’t even think about it.” He said he’s not very involved in the sub-contractor level of work.
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