Mecklenburg County spends millions on parks without competitive bidding

Millions spent without competition

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Millions of dollars are being spent on Mecklenburg County parks without the benefit of competitive bidding and some are questioning whether it's costing taxpayers money.


"I just don't understand why they don't accept a bid from someone else," said Kris Gresham.

Gresham is a former pro baseball player who spent the past several years coaching kids in northwest Mecklenburg County.

"We went from having 15 to 20 teams (ten years ago)," said Gresham. "Now, last year I think we had 37."

The population explosion has put a strain on resources and has CoulOak Little League once again facing a challenge.

"We're faced with where do we put kids on a daily basis," said Gresham.

CoulOak practices and plays in more than a half dozen different places, including Shuffletown Park. The Little League would like to use it more, but can't.

"Early in the spring you're done by 6:30 at the latest and that becomes a safety issue," said Gresham.

It's because Shuffletown Park doesn't have lights. CoulOak Little League reached out to Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation to see if lights could be added. They were told it would cost up to $485,000.


The price quote comes from Musco Sports Lighting. A company based in Iowa. Parents at CoulOak thought the cost was steep and wanted to shop around. They were told don't bother.

"Pointless, (Parks and Rec) won't use them," said Gresham.

It's because the County Commission, back in 2008 approved a sole source agreement with Musco Sports Lighting. Parks across the county are being lit up, at what will be a taxpayer cost, of almost $6 million. All of it spent, void of any real competitive bidding.

"It's not a heck of a deal, it's a heck of a product," said Mecklenburg County Parks and Rec director Jim Garges.

Garges says Musco is the only company that meets all of the county's lighting specifications for things like energy efficiency, glare control (light doesn't steam onto neighboring properties), warranty and automation.


"They have the best capability to meet all specifications the county has," said Garges. "It's not our fault that there is not competition. It's the industry."

There is plenty of competition for other contracts. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, UNC Charlotte and the Charlotte Knights, to name a few, have all used various companies and products to light up stadiums and fields. Parks and Rec maintains its needs are very specific.

"What the county is not going to do lower its specifications, or needs to put in a different lighting system," said Garges. "Any lighting company can come in any day and see if they meet our specifications."

Others have tried. The county says another company came forward as recently as 2012 to compete for work at the new Matthews Sportsplex. Parks and Rec says Torrence Sports Lighting, based in Charlotte, was turned away because of the desire to have "standardization" in things like "automated scheduling systems" and "energy information summaries."

Garges says the Musco systems allows Parks and Rec managers to remotely turn lights on and off. WBTV has been told the technology is not exclusive to Musco, it would just require opening a second program to control a competing system.

Torrence Sports Lighting (TSL) has done plenty of work for dozens of towns, cites and school districts, including many CMS projects (


of past TSL projects). WBTV reached out to Owner Mike Torrence who sent us a statement.

"Torrence Sports Lighting, Inc. can provide sports lighting products and services that meet Charlotte Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation field lighting specifications. Our experience has shown that competitive bidding and pricing generally leads to lower costs to sports lighting project owners. We have completed many projects in Mecklenburg County and the Carolinas for high schools, private sector projects, colleges and universities, as well as professional venues. As a citizen and taxpayer of Mecklenburg County, we would welcome the opportunity to compete for Charlotte Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation projects," said Torrence.

does have similar sole source agreements with other Parks and Rec departments across the country.

"Musco Sports Lighting LLC has developed comprehensive sports lighting solutions for Mecklenburg County facilities in order to meet the specifications established and address the unique requirements of each lighting sports venue. The specifications include but are not limited to strict environmental light control, player safety, energy savings through the use of advanced optical efficiencies, elimination of maintenance costs and standardized control systems. Musco lighting systems provide the most comprehensive, cost effective solution over the life cycle of a sports lighting system for our customers," said Musco Sports Lighting in a statement to WBTV.

Is the county overpaying? It's hard to know for sure without formal bidding, but CoulOak Little League did get an informal quote from another company to light Shuffletown Park. They said it was about half the Musco price.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham said the county should revisit the sole source exception.

"It is just the practical thing to do," said Cotham. "It could be the current supplier is the best one, but until we re-evaluate the situation we do not know that for sure."

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said he is asking the county manager's office for more information.

"Generally, speaking, though, I do believe it is wise for the county to periodically review its contracts to ensure it is getting a good product at competitive pricing," said Ridenhour.

Commissioner Jim Puckett said these types of agreements should be revisited "every couple years." 

Meantime, at Shuffletown Park the play will continue to be done in the day light. The county says the fields won't be lit, until funding for the $485,000 dollar project becomes available.


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