GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – A decision in a lawsuit over debris removal remains in George County’s favor. It spares the county from additional expenses over two years after Hurricane Zeta hit the area and caused millions of dollars in damage.
The lawsuit, filed by Holliday Construction of Poplarville, argued the county illegally awarded the contract for debris clean-up after the storm and the company was due damages.
The state court of appeals on December 13 upheld the George County Circuit Court’s May 2021 decision that Holliday was due no payout.
The George Co. Board of Supervisors awarded the contract for debris clean-up to Custom Tree Care, a Kansas company with prior FEMA contracts in multiple states, in November 2020. The company’s bid was $1.68 million, $665,437 less than the next lowest bid submitted by Holliday. (The Court of Appeals found Custom Tree Care used outdated information in its bid and the difference between the two bids with the corrected estimates would have been $230,187.)
Holliday filed the lawsuit in January 2021 on the basis that Custom Tree Care did not have a commercial license in the state of Mississippi and was ineligible to receive the contract. The county believed a license was unnecessary with no actual construction work needed.
After the lawsuit was filed, the Miss. Board of Contractors determined that a license was needed since the county’s request for proposals included excavation, grading, drainage and landscaping work.
Circuit Court Judge Kathy King Jackson ordered the debris removal to stop in early February while the county considered or appealed the board’s opinion.
In April 2021, the county told the court it terminated the contract with Custom Tree Care and sought approval to award an annual contract to AAA General Contractors of Alexander City, Ala. for general debris clean-up when needed, including the Hurricane Zeta debris collection.
Holliday contested, arguing they were the lowest original qualified bidder and were entitled to the contract. Judge Jackson threw out the county’s new plan and the supervisors voted to reject the original bids and readvertise. With that resolution, Judge Jackson ruled Holliday had no grounds for payment.
In June 2021, the contract was awarded to AAA for $2.49 million, the lowest bid out of eight, including one from Holliday for $5.9 million.
FEMA initially estimated the county would have 150,000 cubic yards of debris. Custom Tree Care had already picked up 217,000 cubic yards by the time the court voided the contract and estimated the work was only half done, county records show.
Also in June, Holliday appealed the county circuit court’s decision, arguing the county’s erroneous awarding of the contract to the unqualified company cost it profits that would have been received as the lowest qualified bidder.
That same month, WKRG reported the City of Lucedale debated cleaning up debris itself as it sat along Main Street (part of State Highway 198), eight months after the storm made landfall. Holliday Construction was the Miss. Dept. of Transportation contractor to pick-up the debris along state highways in George County.
Throughout 2021, George County asked for extensions from FEMA as it borrowed money to pay AAA to complete the clean-up. Both sides asked for extensions to file arguments in the lawsuit.
In July 2022, the arguments were handed over to the state Court of Appeals justices for review. The final decision, affirming the ruling that Holliday was not entitled to damages, was handed down Dec. 13 with eight of nine justices concurring.
The appeal win was a relief to the county after a lawsuit over a 2014 wrongful death in the county jail was settled for $2.5 million in June, depleting half the county’s general fund at the time.
“We are in a tight situation until we get some tax revenue coming in,” Board of Supervisors President Frankie Massey told WKRG at the 2023 budget hearing in September. “I had no less than three budget requests that we were unable to fund. We just have to roll it into next year and hope things are gonna be better.”
Final clean-up work was completed over summer 2021 in Lucedale and George County. The $7 million check for the 87.5% of damage and clean-up costs FEMA and the state reimbursed finally arrived to the county in October.