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Building Conflict

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A Hope Town Board member is questioning the bidding process that led the Hope Volunteer Fire Department to choose the chief’s brother to build a new $700,000 fire station.

Fire department members say three bids were received before choosing Tim Ross, the brother of Fire Chief Jon Ross, to build the department’s new station. They also say the department doesn’t have to reveal information about the bids, but town board member Tim Shoaf is questioning the bidding process and wants that information to be made public.

Shoaf said the State Board of Accounts confirmed that, as an independent company, there is no requirement for the fire department to solicit and accept bids, go with the lowest bidder or to open bids in a public process. But in the interest of being open with taxpayer money and to avoid appearing unethical, Shoaf contends the department should be more forthcoming.

Fire department Treasurer Ed Stone said that the board received three bids for construction of the new fire station but said he was under no obligation to reveal who the bidders were nor how much they bid. All he would tell Shoaf was that one bid was withdrawn the next morning because the bidder worried about a potential conflict with his full-time employer. The other bid was too high, Stone said.

The fire department board chose the final bidder, the company run by Tim Ross, JHS Construction and Fueling of Madison.

The new station, on Aiken Street, is under construction and is expected to be finished by Sept. 1.

It is being built by the fire department, considered an independent, not-for-profit corporation which contracts with the town of Hope and Hawcreek Township to provide fire protection.

Shoaf questioned the details of the contract at an April 1 town board work session.

Shoaf learned that the department was building a new station when he read it in a February story in The Republic.

Much of the department’s funding comes from firefighting contracts with the town and with Hawcreek Township. The department also receives private donations, but members said they would not disclose those amounts to the town board.

Bruce Neal, the department’s first assistant chief, said that the department trusted Tim Ross with the construction because he was the only contractor who was able to stop a major water leak in the aging fire station on Harrison Street. He had also done work on the department’s kitchen and restrooms for less than market rates, Neal said.

At the April 1 town board meeting, Fire Chief Jon Ross left the room when discussion turned to the contract with his brother’s company.

Afterward, he said that he had intentionally distanced himself from any interactions between the fire department and his brother’s company. He said he abstained from the fire board’s vote that awarded the contract to Tim Ross and he has left all of the discussions on the construction to other board members, with Stone as the primary point of contact.

“What I tried to tell Mr. Shoaf and even the other ones is (that) I am on the building committee from the fact that I am chief, but when it comes down to all of this, I have stayed out of it,” Jon Ross said.

Ross said the contractor may be a family member, but he is also a local resident. Jon Ross said his brother was able to give the department a cheaper rate because the work was being done in a slow construction season and around other jobs. Similarly, Neal’s company, Neal Trucking, is hauling materials for the project at a cheaper rate than on his commercial jobs.

“It is almost like (saying) ‘You are part of the family, so we will give you a cheaper rate,’” Jon Ross said.

Jon Ross said going with a different builder without those connections would have meant a more expensive project.

Approval of the fire department’s contract with the town for fire protection has been held up because of conflicts between the department and town board members. The firefighting contract with the town expired Dec. 31, and the town board has deadlocked twice in its attempts to approve the new contract. The department is still receiving funds from its contract with Hawcreek Township and using reserve funds until the town contract is approved.

Jon Ross said the biggest reason the department has chosen not to be more public is because of the friction with Shoaf.

“He sat here at the last meeting and voted against the contract and said he had some questions that he wanted to ask me,” Ross said. “He’s got my number. He knows where I live. Why didn’t he come ask me? I think that is the biggest reason, because of the way he has presented himself to us about this.”

Alise Pate, a Hope resident, said there was an appearance of unethical behavior when the contract went to the fire chief’s brother. But the larger issue is the reluctance to share information on the department’s finances.

“When you are unwilling and very defensive when people ask questions about that, it does throw up a red flag,” she said.

Pate agrees that there is no legal obligation for the department to reveal details of its finances.

“As a member of the public, I would think that even if they are not legally required to tell the public who they contracted with and how they contracted with them, that as part of our community they would have nothing to hide,” she said.

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