Walton County to seek bids for management of vendors at public beach access areas [PREMIUM]

VENDING OF beach equipment at public beach access areas was again a topic of much discussion at the Sept. 28 BCC meeting. The discussion concluded with the BCC voting to seek bids for management of vendors in these areas. (Photo by Dotty Nist)

By DOTTY NIST

Walton County has opted to put the contract for management of vendors at public beach access areas out for bid.

The decision to have staff draft and advertise a request for proposals (RFP) for these services came at the Sept. 28 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the South Walton Annex, after 90 minutes of discussion, debate, and public comment.

Since the 2019 inception of the Managed Beach Vendor program in Walton County, South Walton Beach Services Association (SWBSA), a 20-member nonprofit association for beach vendors, has had the management role over the program, with oversight by county personnel.

Walton County issues permits for beach vendors to provide beach chairs and umbrellas and other beach items such as kayaks at public beach access areas. The current annual vendor permit fee is $1,000.

The managed beach vendor program had been aimed at addressing the common complaint of “ghost chairs,” unoccupied vendor beach chairs that are sometimes used as place holders on the beach.

The program had begun with a pilot program at two regional beach accesses. It has now been expanded to 19 public beach access areas, including both regional and neighborhood beach accesses.

The program, operating through a concession services contract with SWBSA, provides for a beach attendant furnished by SWBSA to work directly with beachgoers renting beach equipment to set up the equipment for their use and remove the equipment when they are finished with it.

The program has allowed any vendor with a Walton County vending permit to participate and pick up and drop off equipment rented by the vendor’s clients to be set up for the clients by the beach attendant as needed. Fees paid by vendors to the SWBSA have been based on the number of beach equipment sets rented out.

Consideration by the county of an RFP for management of the beach vendors had been in the wake of a Sept. 9 written request on behalf of La Dolce Vita, a beach services/vending company, for the county to consider accepting RFPs from beach vendors for the concession services contract, which is set to expire on Oct. 31.

Tony Cornman, Walton County Code Compliance director, brought forward a proposal for the BCC to consider the RFP. With the managed beach vendor program previously under the supervision of Walton County Beach Operations, oversight of the program was transferred to Cornman’s department in early 2021.

Cornman provided some information on the program, telling the officials that two code officers oversee the managed beach vendor program.

He reported that 83,956 sets (each set two chairs and an umbrella) had been rented through the program at the public beach access areas for the year, through August 2021. The top three most active/busiest accesses, Cornman continued, were Inlet Beach, One Seagrove Place, and Wall Street in Inlet Beach.

He stated that Phillip Poundstone, current manager for the program, had received 24 notices of violation of the concession contract. A total of 12 of those had been for ghost sets, out of almost 84,000 sets rented.

Poundstone also operates his own vending company.

Asked by District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson if this was not a “really low number” of notices of violation, Cornman confirmed that it was.

Anderson said he understood that quite a few of the notices of violation involved young men working on the beach taking off their shirts.

Cornman confirmed this, saying that 10 such violations had been issued on May 1.

“May I suggest that we take that out of the contract?” Anderson said.

After some discussion of this, including that the shirts display the SWBSA logo, Cornman returned to his report, stating that the 24 violations had resulted in $22,500 in fines that SWBSA had to pay. 

He provided additional details on the managed beach vendor program, including records for the program being available as required by the contract and a daily checking of the records by code officers.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s been pretty successful,” Cornman said of the program, adding, “That’s not to say that we can’t make it better.” He said some ideas were being looked at, of which a change with the shirt requirement could be one.

District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell asked about fees collected through the program that go to the county. Cornman reported that $251,868 had been provided to the county at the rate of $3 per set rented for the year, with numbers on fees up to August being currently available. 

In response to other questions, Cornman said it was his understanding that until now SWBSA had been the only party that had been willing to serve as manager for the program. “I understand that we may have some additional ones that want to look at it…so we just thought we’d put it out there and see,” he told the commissioners.

The officials said they had received very few complaints from the public associated with beach vending during SWBSA’s operation of the managed beach vendor program.

District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick commented that, based on Cornman’s remarks, he did not see anything to compel the BCC to address the matter. However, later he acknowledged that legal counsel was doing his job by bringing the issue before the BCC.

Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, commented that upon being informed by Cornman of the request from a vendor for an opportunity to be considered to provide “these contractual services,” he, Adkinson, had advised that it would be appropriate for the BCC to consider advertising an RFP for the services, which had previously been engaged through a no-bid contract.

Glidewell moved to advertise the RFP, and the motion was seconded.

Representing SWBSA, attorney Gary Shipman disagreed with Adkinson’s advice to the BCC, pointing out that what they had done with the contract was not to contract with a sole source or individual vendor but with a “trade association that by the existing documents, they must, not may, allow any vendor who wants to participate, even if they don’t join the trade association, to participate.”

“You haven’t actually entered a contract with a sole source, so it does not require a competitive bid, you can certainly renegotiate the contract,” Shipman added.

Addressing the BCC, Phillip Poundstone said, “I pride myself most of all on the opportunity when there are 20 vendors participating, myself being one of them, that I give an equal opportunity to 19 young men and women who own their own business, who just want to have an entrepreneurial dream.” He pledged to work with the county if requested to arrange for the county to receive more funds through the program.

Poundstone charged that La Dolce Vita’s goal in requesting the RFP was to become exclusive vendor for all the public beach access areas. He warned that if this were to happen many of the vendors would be put out of business.

“I personally don’t think we need to make the change, and nothing against La Dolce Vita, but Phillip stuck his…neck out there when nobody else was willing to,” Anderson commented. He pointed out that La Dolce Vita had “backed” Poundstone in doing so.

“To me, you don’t change horses in the middle of the stream,” Anderson concluded.

District 3 Commissioner Mike Barker commented that he was not against putting out the contract for RFP “in the spirit of fairness and the advice of counsel.” However he was not in favor of a single vendor for vending services.

“I think the openness of having all the vendors participate and giving them all the same opportunity, I think that’s a good thing and I’m certainly not for sole sourcing it out at this time to a single vendor,” he said.

Glidewell told Poundstone that he had done a good job with the program. He said he did not think putting the contract out for RFP was in any way reflecting the contrary. “In fact,” he continued, “I would say that it’s a reflection that you are doing a good job, because now people want the business, too.”

“All we’re saying today is that we’re going to listen,” Glidewell added.

In response to questions, Adkinson emphasized that advertising the RFP would be in line with the county’s purchasing policy. “First and foremost,” he said, “this is a contractual service.”

“There’s nothing wrong,” Adkinson continued, “if after an RFP the board determines that your current vendor is the right person to continue doing this job to award it.”

He explained that the BCC would have the ability to rank the responses to the RFP and conduct any interviews with parties who respond to the request. Later he encouraged the BCC to do so based on the amount of citizen interaction involved in the issue.

Poundstone charged that if the BCC put out the RFP, “you’re going to get all exclusive bids to run the entire beach.” He predicted that large companies from other areas would put in bids and offer “a crazy amount of money” for the contract. He warned that the RFP would present a “very large distraction” that would prevent SWBSA from working to improve and hiring administrative management staff for the next beach season.

“I would ask to remove this distraction,” he urged, “allow the small guy to continue to be in play, allow La Dolce Vita to continue to participate in this program…and let this nonprofit entity continue that lets people be in business.”

Adkinson clarified that the RFP would not be sent out “where one company gets the job, and that’s the only way this RFP goes.”

“We’re going to open this up to allow for the most flexible options in who can apply. If the current vendor association applies, that will be scored and ranked consistent with what they have provided. If Mr. Poundstone wants to put in an alternative proposal for his own company, he can show us what an exclusive vendor would look like,” Adkinson said.

“We’re opening up a can for worms we don’t need to open up,” Anderson complained. He said his understanding from Adkinson’s remarks was that the RFP could not be limited to disallow a sole vendor. He asked if there could be a requirement for whoever is selected from the RFP to “keep the same managed vendor program,” and “follow the same rules we’ve been having.”

Adkinson agreed that this would be an option. Later he also told the commissioners that nothing would prevent them from allowing for proposals that would, for example, be inclusive of more vendors or that would employ more people to be eligible for more points in ranking.

In public comment, Suzanne Harris pointed out the local vendors have an investment in their beach equipment. She noted that it would be unfair for them to be “stuck” with their equipment, which some of them have borrowed money to get, if they are not allowed to continue vending in Walton County.

Dana Matthews, an attorney representing La Dolce Vita, clarified that the letter on behalf of his client was a request to open up the RFP to the “entire vending community.” He noted that set ups rent for an average of $40 per set up, resulting in $2.5 to $3 million worth of revenue being generated at the public beach access areas during a period of three to four months. Matthews commented that at $251,000 ($3 per set), Walton County is getting less than 10 percent of the amount generated.

He told the commissioners that there is too much money involved for the transparency of an RFP not being provided.

Dave Meadows, a local vendor, also spoke in favor of the county seeking bids for the program. While praising Walton County Beach Operations Director Brian Kellenberger for his role in getting the managed vendor association started, Meadows was critical of the current organization, including the cost. Meadows said some vendors do not participate “because it costs too much.”

“I’m not saying bid it out for one single vendor, just make it fair,” he urged.

Addressing the commissioners, Kellenberger spoke at length about the history of the program. He suggested that as the commissioners decide on what their action will be, that they remember that the original intent of the program was “for the county to control the public beach so that everybody that wants to come to that beach has equal opportunity to use it.”

He recommended that if an RFP were done, that it be “based on a managed vendor program.”

Asked if SWBSA had done a good job with the program, Kellenberger responded, “The pilot program worked as intended.” He also commented that difficulties with the program as it expanded, mostly labor resources, had been “ironed out” during the expansion process.

The discussion concluded with Glidewell restating and somewhat fine-tuning his earlier motion. As restated, it was, “to advertise an RFP to provide to manage…the vendors on the public beaches of Walton County with a two-week turnaround on the bids, and that the Board of County Commissioners will rank and score the proposals…after that two weeks is up.”

The motion was approved unanimously.

Speaking to the vendors in attendance, Anderson said, “Understand this is not for one single vendor. As Mr. Glidewell stated, ‘to manage the vendors on the beach.’ It’s the same contract you have now.”