Thursday, January 17, 2008

January 17, 2007 Public Records: Questions from a Reader

I received these questions from Sid, an individual who read my post on Hamblen County Purchasing Director Sharee Long's denials of my request to see the Cherokee Park Boat Ramp bid documents -- public documents that Ms. Long had publicly opened and read aloud just three days before.

After talking with Sid, I posted his comments. Since others might have questions similar to those that Sid asked, here are his questions and a short version of my responses followed by a longer explanation.

1. Why did they add the licensed contractor specification after the first round of bids?

The county will have to require that all bidders be licensed contractors when the project is re-bid. According to state law, a contractor's license is required in order to submit a bid where the work involved is over $25,000.00. Ms. Long did not include in the Advertisement for Bids the requirement that bidders submitting a bid over $25,000.00 must have a contractor's license. See the answer to Question #3 below for a further explanation.

2. Why did Ms. Long think the bids were not public records once opened?

Good question! Ms. Long would have to answer that, but I don't think any commissioner, the local newspaper, or anyone else will ever ask her that question or provide her answer. After all, what possible reason could she give to explain why she decided that no one could see BIDS THAT HAD ALREADY BEEN PUBLICLY OPENED? None.

That's why Ms. Long never even attempted to provide a basis for her statement to me that the already publicly opened bids were no longer public. Instead, she just kept repeating (twice) that they wouldn't be "public" until the committee meetings.

I spoke to Commission Chair Stancil Ford today, and I asked him to please consult with county attorney Rusty Cantwell so Ms. Long and other county employees who respond to public document requests can be better informed when handling document requests. I wonder how many people have walked in and asked for "public" documents in the Mayor's Office only to be told in error--as I was-- that they are not public.

3. Why were all bids rejected?

All bids had to be rejected for two reasons--both of which relate to the actual cost of the project. All bids were over $25,000.00.

$25,000.00 is a magic number. When a project is over $25,000.00, the design plans and specifications require an architect/engineer's involvement and stamp PLUS all bidders have to be licensed contractors.

Neither the plans nor specs for the boat ramp project had an architect's or engineer's stamp. The Boat Ramp "plans" that were used consisted of an 8x10 sketch of the proposed ramp. The "specifications" had been copied from some source and typed out by Ms. Long.

The advertisement for bids that Ms. Long prepared did not state that a contractor's license was required if a bid over $25,000.00 was submitted.

Both of these irregularities go back to the handling of the bid procurement process and poor advice about the estimate of costs.

Now the county is out the cost of the advertisement and wasted time of county employees who were involved in this procurement.

The bidders who picked up the "plans" wasted time and money in estimating and preparing bids that ended up being rejected. Of course, another unfortunate complication of the mishandling of the bid process is that the bid of each of the three bidders is now known to the other bidders.

And, of course, a lot of time has been lost---the boat ramp probably will not be re-bid until the late summer or fall when lake levels start going down again permitting ramp construction.

Thorough and proper planning are very important on capital projects.

UPDATE I: Following my original post of Sid's questions, I contacted Commissioner/Cherokee Park Director Frank Parker to get more information to fill-in-the-blanks about the bid process. Frank was very up-front about the whole situation.

It turns out that Frank was the individual who came up with the "under $25,000.00" estimate of costs. Purchasing Director Sharee Long then apparently pulled ramp specs from an internet source, copied and typed them up, and put the project out to bid without requiring that bidders have a contractor's license.

The boat ramp project? Looks like it's right back at square one and several months off.

UPDATE II: Were the bids that were opened even close to being under $25,000.00 as Commissioner Frank Parker, who also serves as Director of Cherokee Park, had estimated? No. Not close at all. The three bids rounded were $52,000.00; $59,000.00; and $80,000.00.


Sid said...

Never attribute to malice that which can be easily explained by ignorance. In this case, incompetence.

I have had to deal with a few government employees who really have no idea about contract law, business considerations, or bidding. They create more problems than they should because they lack even a layman's understanding of the very process they supervise.

Although this project is small, it may stand in the way of larger revenue generation. The boat ramp may be very necessary to increased activity and increased revenue for the community.

Yet (if all is reported), a government employee who lacks the requisite knowledge for her position has caused financial harm to the public and several private entities. Will anyone in authority take action to correct her ongoing shortfalls?

Sid said...

Update II - is very common. In parks, playgrounds, and church buildings; I have seen firsthand that the first projected price is far off the mark. Occasionally, it is too high, but as we see in this case the first projected price is usually too low.

This is understandable and not evidence of a conspiracy. It is evidence of inexperience and/or incompetence in planning. Building projects (in theory) are easily understood and underestimated. The project inspiration is very straightforward. "We want the warped boards replaced on the boat ramp." How hard can that be? We looked at some deck boards at Lowe's the other day and it only runs about $x.xx a foot so we are only looking at $XX,XXX for the whole project.

WRONG. Did an engineer or competent contractor inspect the supports? Why are the existing boards wapred? Maybe the existing deck boards are undersized and cannot be replaced with a similar board. All the decking has to be removed to repair the warped structure. Codes that did not apply when the original structure was built now must be incorporated in the project. DEQ will not allow the original timbers to be replaced with creosote treated timbers due to water quality issues. Who pays for the temporary safety barriers and silt fence?

Quality, competent building practices have a true cost. Too often, the individual responsible for setting the projected price simply has no experience setting a construction price. When the real price comes back in the form of bonded bids be qualified bidders, drama ensues.

Linda said...

I agree with your comment that the mishandling of this particular project was largely due to incompetence rather than any type of conspiracy.

However, as one who has watched the county bid process closely, I know that this is only one example of several bids that have been handled improperly and, in some instances, illegally.

The good news is that there are some purchasing agents around who know how to properly solicit bids and handle a bid opening.

A Public Notice that appears today
(1/20/08)in the local newspaper includes an Advertisement for Bids from Telamon. This Ad correctly includes the wording that Ms. Long failed to include in her ad: "Bidders... submitting bids equal to or greater than $25,000.00 are required to be licensed in accordance with state law."

Of course, Ms. Long also had another problem in that she did not have an architect/engineer for the project.

The estimating and the procurement process for the Boat Ramp were defective at best and illegal at worst.

You have apparently seen this scenario play out in other areas, and your second paragraph pinpoints the two likely reasons for this situation.