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Big Debate, Small-town Politics: Cedar County project under scrutiny by resident

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Six months of quiet work for a new building by the Cedar County Ambulance District is now in question by a very vocal local.

Stockton resident Harry Rowe has privately investigated a typically routine public project for an “ambulance barn” to house the county’s two emergency response vehicles. His allegations of illegal development procedures have brought tension to the lake town.

The debate centers around the ambulance district’s choice to follow a design-build project completion process.

During a more common design-bid-build process for public projects, an architect is hired and the design phase is completed before a general contractor is hired. Under the design-build process, proposals are accepted from contractors that include both design aspects and financial estimates in one contract.

The district released a request for proposal in July and received two responses. The selected bid was from Stockton native Lynden Kenny of Kenny Construction.

Under Rowe’s interpretation of the law, Missouri Revised Statutes 67.5060, the district was required to hire a nonbidding architect, known as a design criteria consultant, to prepare the RFP. He said one was never named, so every step of the process has been illegal.

“My goal is to make them start over,” Rowe said.

First steps
Rowe, an avid sailor, retired to the Stockton Lake area in 1996, after a 34-year career in architecture – including a position with the city of Columbia reviewing plans for building permits.

When he learned the political subdivision was requesting proposals for the project, he said it signaled concerns as to whether legal procedures were being followed – and later whether fraud was being committed.

For one, the budgeted price tag is $835,000.

“That’s a lot of money for a pole barn,” Rowe said.

In the preliminary stages, the ambulance district sought advice from Illinois-based Morton Buildings, a contractor that has built over 1,000 fire stations, emergency management facilities and others for public use. The six-member district board also held open meetings to discuss the issue before releasing an RFP from contractors, but few people attended, according to district president John Wilson.

“But here recently, the last two or three months, Harry has been there,” Wilson said.

Wilson said he doesn’t understand Rowe’s objections to the project. “He’s the only one in the whole county that is against what we’re doing,” Wilson said.

The district board is represented by private-practice attorney Frank Foster, who specializes in public safety agencies. Foster said the board followed Missouri’s design-build statutes out of an abundance of caution, even though it seemed to be exempt from many of the requirements due to the small size and scope of the project.

Squeezed for space
Amid all the debate raised by Rowe, it is clear to Wilson that Stockton’s current ambulance station must be replaced.

The current building houses two ambulances and includes living quarters for Citizens Memorial Hospital emergency responders. Wilson said it was originally designed as a mechanic’s shop and is inadequate for the district’s needs. For example, gear used by emergency workers is stored along the walls of the ambulance bays and wrapped in sheets, he said, due to a lack of storage space in the building.

“So every time you fire up a truck, the exhaust is getting on those medical supplies,” he said.

The building also has no space designated for the work of running the district or maintaining records. 

“We have our meetings in an ambulance bay because we don’t have an office,” he said.

But nonetheless, Rowe made it his mission to research the design-build law and try to get the board back on track.

He said he attended as many board meetings as he could. He published as many letters to the editor as the local newspapers would allow. He’s complained to the local prosecutor, the state attorney general, and to the regulatory board for architects and engineers – with no success. He also contacted members of Morton Buildings and its affiliates trying to discover clues that would further his accusations of misconduct.

He even took the time to draw up new plans for the proposed building, he said, that would save county taxpayers $100,000 and another design that would remodel the existing building for a savings of $500,000.

“I made copies of two revisions and I sent it to every board member along with a letter,” he said. “[Wilson] came back with a letter from his attorney to me. He told me I cannot contact board members individually. The only time I’m supposed to talk to these people is at a monthly board meeting, or when they have a public forum, and they give you five minutes to talk.”

Wilson said the district met with Rowe individually multiple times, to listen to his input and discuss the plans.

“It’s a waste of our time,” Wilson said of Rowe disrupting the proceedings. “He tries to interrupt our meetings. Who is he to say that we are breaking the law?”

Even though the district is going forward with its plans to build the new ambulance station, Rowe said the fight isn’t over. He’ll continue to lobby the local prosecutor and the attorney general.

“I know I have them dead to rights, but I don’t have the money to sue them,” he said.

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