Complaints over synthetic turf competitive bidding in Georgia

A process meant to prevent fraud and misconduct is being called into question after millions of taxpayer dollars are allegedly being awarded to private companies without consent.

All across Georgia, you’ll find synthetic grass on athletic fields at high schools, colleges and professional sports stadiums, including the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta.

Nearly half of all NFL teams play on some sort of synthetic turf and most, if not all, is manufactured in Georgia.

The originator, Astroturf, is headquartered in Dalton. In the 1960’s, the name Astroturf became synonymous with artificial playing fields, and to a large extent, still is.

A few years ago, the University of North Georgia decided to transition from natural grass to synthetic turf on three different playing fields, baseball, soccer and football.

The price tag was over $2 million and insiders say Astroturf and several other manufacturers would have liked the opportunity to bid on the project.

But Astroturf never received the chance.

CBS46 filed an open records request and found that Astroturf was never considered for one of the bids. A competitor was handed the project.

Field Turf, located in Calhoun, is a division of the French company Tarkett Incorporated.

Despite Astroturf’s more famous name, Field Turf claims to have a superior product and that’s why officials at North Georgia University wanted it, says Mac McConnell, the university’s senior vice president of business and finance.

“Our athletic department had a strong preference for the product from Field Turf,” says McConnell.

Clint Murphy, chairman of Common Cause in Georgia, says competitive bidding ensures taxpayers get the best deal and prevents corruption.

“You do have these cozy relationships, whether they started out well intentioned in the beginning, as time goes on, it’s not in the best interest of everybody in the state,” says Murphy.

Rules spelled out by the state purchasing division clearly state that is taxpayer money is involved, you can’t just go out and buy anything you want.

According to the Georgia Vendor Manual, only purchases below $5,000 are exempt.

The manual states, “A formal sealed bidding process shall be used for all solicitations involving expenditures of $5,000 or more.”

That’s pretty clear. No ifs, ands or buts.

It doesn’t mean that a contract must go to the lowest bidder, if there’s a compelling reason to accept a higher bid. But it does mean that the bidding process must take place.

Or does it?

McConnell says there is a product available through the Department of Administrative Services called the EZ-IQC contract that doesn’t require a bidding process.

State purchasing officials would not go on camera with CBS46 but did say that people can get around the bidding process, even though there’s not a word about it in their own handbook.

In the University of North Georgia’s case, they went directly to a list of pre-qualified contractors, hiring an outfit called Prime Contractors Incorporated, which, in turn, bought and installed Field Turf. The process took place with no bids and no fuss. Except for one thing.

A state purchasing official told CBS46 that the EZ-IQC contract is limited to renovation, repair and minor construction. It is not a tool designed for expensive construction.

CBS46 asked why a $2 million project wouldn’t be considered expensive construction.

Clint Murphy says the University of North Georgia has to think about whom their fiduciary duty is to. Is it to the vendor or the taxpayer?

Meanwhile, McConnell says he has no problem with how the process played out.

“I don’t see any problem with the way the university conducted the transaction,” said McConnell.

We asked if any questions should be asked by anyone concerned about using taxpayer dollars.

“I think the project was a good use of taxpayer dollars,” said McConnell.

Murphy says he wants to see ‘no bid contracts’ come up for discussion in the current legislative session.

“When you have a competitive bidding process that is transparent and fair, taxpayers win. When you take that away, taxpayers lose,” said Murphy.

Is this $2 million contract for turf at the University of North Georgia the best deal for taxpayer dollars? And how many other millions of dollars are being spent the same way? We may never know.