Bell calls for review of Mt. Zion contract costs

A rendition of the planned restoration of Mt. Zion.

WINNSBORO – Cancelling plans for a new county building would trigger litigation that could cost Fairfield County upwards of $13 million, some council members say.

“If the ultimate goal is to tear down this project, we’re probably looking at a $13 million lawsuit we can’t afford,” Councilman Neil Robinson said during a special meeting Feb. 10. “We’re looking at our bond rating going down and we’re looking at no other plan to house [county] employees.”

Robinson’s grim warning came in response to Council Chairman Moses Bell’s suggestion to create an ad hoc committee to “review the Mt. Zion contract to determine the costs to the county from the beginning to the end.”

Council members voted 4-3, with Bell and council members Mikel Trapp, Shirley Greene and Tim Roseborough supporting the committee. Bell appointed Greene, Roseborough and Robinson to serve on the committee.

In October 2018, the council in a supermajority 5-2 decision voted to repurpose the old Mt. Zion Institute into a new county building and lease it at an estimated cost of $4.2 million.

The current council, however, has consistently voted 4-3 since they were seated on Jan. 11, 2020, and in the opposite direction as prior councils recently have voted.

Bell stated an ad hoc committee was needed to determine the true costs associated with the Mt. Zion plan.

“We continue to get this question—how much is it costing us?” Bell said, not specifying who is asking the question. “The purpose of this [committee] is just to see how much this is costing us from inception up until now.

“We need to look at the cost end of the building,” Bell continued. “We don’t know what that’s going to look like.”

“Is the true intention of Mt. Zion committee to lay the groundwork for canceling the contract?

– Councilman Neil Robinson

Gilbert, though, said spending time revisiting the Mt. Zion vote also risks hampering ongoing projects, such as infrastructure upgrades and recruiting industry.

“Shouldn’t we be looking forward instead of looking backwards?” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We as a council and the administrator should be moving Fairfield County forward.”

Greene countered by saying it’s the council’s responsibility to evaluate how taxpayer money is spent.

“We’re responsible for making sure our money is spent judiciously. We can’t do that if the information isn’t in front of us,” Greene said. “If we’re going to move Fairfield forward, we have to make sure we have all the financial information that we need.”

Robinson said he worries the true intention of the Mt. Zion committee is to lay the groundwork for canceling the contract.

“Before this new council came in, it was already said that the first thing on the agenda was to tear down old projects,” Robinson said. “It kind of seems like we’re following suit with that. If we spend two years digging up all old stuff to make sure it’s correct, we won’t get anything done,” Robinson added.

Bell responded that he’s heard conflicting figures about the true cost and forming a committee will help pin down the exact figure.

“We want to settle all the questions,” Bell said.

Councilman Doug Pauley reminded Bell that the answers to cost-related questions can be found in recordings of the various public meetings and town halls the council held on the subject.

“I’ll tell you what’s amazing to me, except for Ms. Greene and Mr. Roseborough, who have recently been elected, all five of us were here when the Mt. Zion contract was done,” Pauley said. “Now we get to this point and you don’t have a clue what was spent, what was discussed. The five of us already on council should’ve already answered these questions.”

The Mt. Zion committee has been tasked with reporting back to the council within 60 days.

Also during the Monday night special meeting, council members voted 4-3 to create another ad hoc committee, this one to hire a new county attorney.

Former county attorney Tommy Morgan is resigning effective March 1, citing the shifting political landscape in Fairfield County following the November election.

The Feb. 10 vote initially began as a motion for “the council to hire the new attorney” without any additional details.

Pressed by Robinson, Gilbert and Pauley for details, Bell said he’s looking to form a committee, which wasn’t stated in the original motion. 

Bell said he would be chairing the committee, which would also include Councilman Trapp, and that County Administrator Jason Taylor would serve in an advisory capacity.

The committee will interview the attorney candidates and make a recommendation to the council.

There was no discussion of advertising the county attorney vacancy. Rather, Bell said, “We’re thinking about reaching out to those persons we know with the help of attorneys that we know today.”

The agenda for last week’s meeting also contained an item regarding forming a third ad hoc committee to review census data, but action on that item was postponed.