The car dealer that shipped eight new patrol cruisers to Scotland County said he was “100 percent surprised” to learn that the sheriff had not authorized ordering the cars.
Larry Williams of Bobby Jones Ford in Augusta, Ga. said Wednesday that representatives of the sheriff’s department had asked that the cars be shipped.
Sheriff Shep Jones told the county commissioners this week that nothing had been signed, and that no agreement was ever made – written or otherwise – with Williams to ship the cars.
Jones said on Wednesday that he had instructed his staff to get a copy of contracts so that they could be properly audited and approved by the commissioners, but that he never asked for anything beyond that.
“I requested the contracts at least four or five times so that they could be pre-audited and the next thing I heard was that the cars were on their way and then that they were here,” said Jones. The Sheriff said that it seems Williams thought that they was further along in the negotiation process than they actually were.
“It seems like everybody wasn’t on the same sheet of music,” said Williams, who sells hundreds of vehicles per year to law enforcement and government.
Williams said that he dealt almost exclusively with the sheriff’s department throughout the negotiation process.
“I deal with so many customers in North Carolina and a lot of the deals are verbal,” said Williams, who was so convinced that he had reached a verbal agreement that he placed an order for the eight vehicles in September of 2012. The cars are the latest Ford police interceptors and range in cost from approximately $36,000 to $39,000.
Williams said that he believes much of the confusion stems from the fact that the sheriff’s department decided to add cameras to the vehicles.
“I think they had approval for the cars originally without the cameras and then they decided to add them.”
According to County Manager Kevin Patterson and the official minutes of the board of commissioners, the board never approved any order — with or without cameras.
Some of the earliest discussions about changing the sheriff’s department automobile purchase schedule only took place in September, back when Williams said that he placed an order for the cars.
In his manager’s report, Patterson told the commissioners at their September meeting that sheriff’s department was “exploring a lease/purchase option for patrol vehicles.”
It was at that time that the commissioners asked for more information from the sheriff’s department, but that was as far as the commissioners’ discussion got before the vehicles showed up at the county court house two weeks ago.
E-mails provided by Williams show that he had sent several quotes to Captain James Pegues. The correspondence does not include evidence of an agreement to purchase the vehicles.
“Much of what we discussed was on the phone,” Williams said.
It is now left up to the board to either continue with buying the vehicles, or send them back.
“I think there has been a miscommunication along the way. I don’t know what the answer is, but there is a lot of finger pointing by a lot of different people, and the commissioners would like to investigate that,” said Guy McCook, chairman of the board of commissioners. “I don’t know whose fault it is yet.”
Because the vehicles have been priced by the dealership at the standard North Carolina contract rate, they could legally be purchased by the board without being subject to a lengthy bidding process.
“Now that it has happened, we must decide how to deal with it. I think the staff has done the right thing in putting the brakes on everything. Now what we need to do is find out what is in the best interests of our county,” McCook said.
“There is no obligation to the county, and the sheriff’s department is going to bring a proposal back to the commissioners at our (February 4) meeting.”
McCook said that handling the process in an open and public manner would be a priority.
“We want to try to help the public have more confidence in their commissioners and the decisions that we make.”
The commissioners must also decide whether to purchase all eight of the vehicles. Because the automobiles were customized with cameras, only seven of the cars can be purchased within the sheriff’s departmental budget.
“I would’ve never added the cameras if they hadn’t told me to,” said Williams. “I also asked them if they wanted to pick the cars up, and (sheriff’s department officials) said that they would rather have them delivered.”
The sheriff’s department’s current purchase plan allowed for three new vehicles to be purchased each year. Because of rising maintenance costs on the aging fleet of 35 vehicles, the sheriff’s department sought to explore alternatives.
McCook said that the commissioners were “all a little puzzled” when they first heard that the vehicles were in Scotland County.
“I’ve been in business for 30 years, and when you have shipped several hundred thousand dollars worth of vehicles and equipment, somebody is taking a big risk there.”
Patterson said that because an audit of any purchase agreement by the county’s finance officer is legally required prior to any purchase being made, even if Williams did have signed purchase orders, they would not be valid.