No-bid contracts tied to commissioner

Anti-Microbial UVC Tubelight Sanitation – Illustration as EPS 10 File

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Posted July 30, 2021 | By Carlos Medina,

County review of process finds no issues with more than $400,000 in purchases

What started out as a portioned effort to improve air quality at some Marion County buildings, quickly turned into the emergency purchase of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of microbe-killing ultraviolet lights, despite limited evidence that they are effective against COVID-19.

All told, between 2019 and 2020 Triatomic Environmental Inc., doing business as Fresh-Air UAV, received a total of $404,086.80 in no-bid contracts from Marion County for UVC lighting systems installed into county air conditioning systems. Triatomic’s local representative is Chad House, husband of Commissioner Kathy Bryant.

The county used more than $350,000 in federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for the UV systems. But the Federal Drug Administration reports there is “limited published data about the wavelength, dose, and duration of UVC radiation required to inactivate the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

There are also questions about the effectiveness of the lights on viruses in general.

“UVC radiation can only inactivate a virus if the virus is directly exposed to the radiation. Therefore, the inactivation of viruses on surfaces may not be effective due to blocking of the UV radiation by soil, such as dust, or other contaminants such as bodily fluids,” according to the FDA’s website.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends other steps to improve air quality, including opening windows or using HEPA filters before stepping up to UV systems, which are more expensive.

Despite the questions, the county went forward with the systems. They were not alone. Many other communities across the country also bet on UVC technology and the systems were in short supply.

One government agency that did not follow the trend was Orange County Public Schools, which initially approved $13.2 million to install the lights into their schools, but later decided to install high-rated air filters recommended by the CDC.

Marion County has been using the lights for years in a limited capacity.

“Ultraviolet systems have been used in some county-owned and maintained buildings since 2005 for multiple reasons such as air quality improvements, heat transfer efficiency, decreased maintenance requirements, and deactivation of the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus at the health department,” wrote County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes in response to written questions.

Neither Bouyounes nor Bryant agreed to interviews for this story, agreeing only to take written questions.

“In 2018, we further enhanced our air quality programs to maintain healthy work environments in county-owned and maintained buildings,” Bouyounes continued.

In August 2019, after months of back and forth between House and county administrators, the county ordered $48,715 in UV lighting and supplies from Triatomic Environmental. Bouyounes wrote that the purchase was included in the 2019 approved budget.

The supplies were for “the indoor air quality upgrades to Marion County Fire Stations,” according to purchase orders. The purchase was not sent out for bids.

Pam Olsen, the county’s director of procurement, questioned the lack of competitive bids for the purchase in an email.

Mike Bates, the county’s operations manager, wrote back: “This is factory direct purchase. No dealers to get bids from. We use these in other locations on our larger equipment. They offer the best warranty and are the only manufacturers to date that will sale directly to the County.”

However, a public records request for emails between House and county administrators showed there were two bids for similar products bearing the same product codes dated July 19, 2019. One was from Johnstone Supply and the other from Baker FCS. The bids were in some instances a few dollars less than Triatomic’s price. There was no warranty information included with the bids.

Representatives from Johnstone and Baker said they did not recall details of the bid for Fresh Air UV products. 

But Bates wrote, “there was no other quotes per the information given to me.” The form had one bid attached for Triatomic Environmental.

The two bids surfaced as attachments to a 2020 email sent to House from Wayne Noonan, county building maintenance supervisor. There was no clear explanation of why House was given copies of the bids.

House also declined to comment for the story.

The 2019 Triatomic purchase also did not go before the board of commissioners for approval.

“Purchases under $50,000 are generally handled through a quote process. There are exceptions to the quote process for actions such as emergency purchases, standardization, purchases made to replace an existing item, or for certain repairs,” Bouyaneres wrote.

Then in January 2020, COVID-19 was first detected in the U.S.

By February, House began sending county administrators emails about the effectiveness of Fresh-Air UAV’s systems at achieving up to “99.999996%” reduction on microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, mold and fungus.

In the memo, the company acknowledged that the systems had not been tested against COVID-19.

By early March, the county was asking for estimates to install systems at the judicial complex, six libraries, growth services, utilities and the majority of buildings at the McPherson Government Complex.

On March 16, the county filed an emergency purchase order for $138,711 for UV systems and supplies from Triatomic.

The same day, the county sent House an email stating they wanted to extend the project to the rest of utility buildings, the health department buildings in Reddick and Belleview, the Marion County Sheriff’s operations center and sub-stations, the Marion County Jail, road substations, wastewater treatment plants, wellness center, veterans and the visitor bureau and the guardian ad litem offices.

On March 17, U.S. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency in response to the pandemic.

On March 20, the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Marion County.

Four days later, the County Commission approved the purchase of the first batch of UV systems. The details were included as part of the consent agenda with several other items. Bryant did not recuse herself from the vote, which is required for a conflict of interest like a family member benefiting from business with the county. 

However, Bryant cured the issue at the next commission meeting where she stated the conflict and recused herself before the commission voted on the contract a second time.

In May, the commission approved $216,856.80 in UV systems from Triatomic via an emergency purchase. This time, however, Bryant did recuse herself, but did not state why she was recusing herself as required by Florida Statute 112.3143. She did file the proper form detailing the relationship with her husband as the reason for her recusal.   

While the county’s first purchase from Triatomic was part of the Air Quality Initiative, Bouyounes states the subsequent purchases were not part of the regular budget for 2020. Federal coronavirus relief funds were only to be spent on items not in the regular budget.

Still, the purchases paid for with federal funds still reference the county’s Air Quality Initiative.

“The Air Quality Initiative was the county’s dedication to improve the parameters of air quality in various locations dependent on available funds. The air quality control budget line item for 2020 was still intended to continue the improvements to the fire stations indoor environment. Prior to the pandemic, Facilities Management was investigating different methods of monitoring and reporting fire station indoor air quality parameters,” Bouyounes wrote.

While both 2020 purchases were listed as neutral expenditures to the budget, Bouyounes maintained the purchase of UVC germicidal disinfection systems were not planned in the approved 2020 budget.

“It was a neutral budget impact because other operational funds were reprioritized for the emergency purchase. We did not require additional funds to be transferred from the county reserves,” he wrote.

Ultimately the more than $355,000 in UV systems were paid for with federal funds.

Meanwhile, Bryant wrote that the purchases were all done properly.

“Yes, it was proper for Marion County to purchase these units from Triatomic Environmental. The majority of these purchases were in response to the pandemic. Triatomic Environmental has been a long-established vendor with Marion County going back to 2008 for this type of product. At the time, sanitizing products and systems were becoming scarce. Because of Marion County’s long-standing relationship with Triatomic we were able to receive the products deemed necessary by facilities management to help keep our employees, as well as the public, safe in a timely manner. This purchase was during a State of Emergency and in response to the pandemic,” Bryant wrote.

Between 2008 and 2013, the county purchased less than $24,000 in products from Triatomic Environmental, according to records.

House began representing the company in 2018.

Matthew G. Minter, the county attorney, issued a memorandum on June 29 stating that he was of the opinion that “Bryant’s mistaken violation of the statute on March 24, 2020, was properly cured by the subsequent re-vote by the Board at the next Board meeting, at which time Chairman Bryant disclosed a voting conflict and abstained from voting.”

Minter also opinioned that the contract squarely fell within the statutory exemption for an emergency purchase.

“Chairman Bryant did not advocate either to the Procurement Department, or to the Board, for the approval of this purchase.”

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