I tuned into today to see the year’s first city council meeting. I wanted to see if anyone had made a New Year’s resolution to be less of a jackass and more an actual public servant. Newsflash – same shit, different year.
What really got me to thinking was that council deleted on item that was a construction bid and delayed another. These actions have become the norm since the new council and mayor took office. It hasn’t just been my parent’s firm who has seen things re-bid or recalled, it’s a lot of firms. It seems like almost every construction contract award suffers some kind of setback or odd interrogation by council members. To be honest, every construction contract vote is starting to look at lot like how things went down in the pre-Escobar days of El Paso County Commissioner Court – you know, the corruption days of years past.
Being an insider, I can tell you that while most of the folks at the county went to jail for non-construction related corruption, the real game was in construction and engineering contracts. The games being played with these contracts were easy to spot, but hard to prove. Before everyone was arrested and Escobar ran the purchasing director off, any bid that didn’t work out the way it was supposed to either disappeared completely or was subject to the quorum game during the Monday meeting (that little thing where commissioners would leave the room during certain items so they didn’t have a quorum and the item couldn’t be voted on). If they did manage to stay and discuss a contract award, the questions from the commissioners always pointed to them trying to angle for another contractor who was likely paying them under the table to divert the contract their way. It was one huge illegal mess that took place for years.
Ever since the new council was sworn in it seems that construction contract awards are being gamed just like they used to be gamed at the county level. Just today one award was “deleted” and another was postponed. That was two out of three contract awards that were either canceled or pushed back. That never used to happen. Even when they contracts aren’t being deleted from the agenda, rebid or postponed, the questions from certain council members sound like they are coming straight out of the mouths of the construction company heads who didn’t win the bid. And when it’s not the construction company interfering, it seems as if personal vendettas from both staff and council are playing a part in jamming up the process.
I hate to say it, but it feels like something illegal or unethical may be taking place here. In the previous decade at council none of these games were ever played. All of a sudden it seems that even when you win a low bid contract you only have a small chance it will actually be awarded to you.
Mind you – my parent’s firm has only been in one of these scrapes and we agreed that the low bidder (not us) should have gotten the contract. Instead, they rebid it and neither my parent’s firm nor the original low bidder got the contract. The original low bidder didn’t even participate in the re-bid. Other construction firms have had several of these scrapes – including a couple firms who were up for award today.
The one bid with Basic IDIQ Inc. being awarded the San Jancinto Plaza construction was deleted by engineering. If you watched council the engineering department representative tried to claim it was a misprint or something like that. Wrong. Basic IDIQ was at $4.5 million while the other two bidder were at $7.5 million plus. This bid was the talk of the contractor world when it became apparent that the city wasn’t going to disqualify Basic IDIQ for totally screwing up their number.
I know what you are saying – “but, but, but David K! If we can save $3 million why not do it?” Because the project can’t be completed for $3 million and the taxpayers will have to pay another $7 million just to fix what they don’t complete. The other two bidders, F.T. James and Venegas Engineering MGMT and Construction, are good constructions companies who serve taxpayers well. They are direct competitors of my parent’s firm and while we would always like to beat them, we know they’ll produce a great product when they win. Their numbers are close to what it costs to do the project. You can trust these guys. They are both in business and successful because they never underbid a project just to get some money in the door.
The real reason the item was jerked was because the contractor community has some real qualms with this Basic IDIQ group. Not only is their bid irresponsible, there’s question on whether or not they have experience doing the type of construction work required in this contract. There’s also another little hiccup in their record with the city.
When Basic IDIQ was doing the El Paso Times building remodel for the city it became apparent to the contracting community that they were NOT complying with the apprenticeship program laws set forth by the federal government. A group of local contractors approached the city to point this out (they were initially pissed at Basic IDIQ’s no bid contract where they performed the work for as much as twice the cost it would have been if it had been competitively bid). Guess what – not only was Basic IDIQ not punished for their infraction (a serious infraction that usually gets you blacklisted for life), but the contractors who brought the situation up to city officials had their business with the city (both present and past) audited down to the fifteenth decimal point and otherwise harassed. Yes, you read that right – the people who pointed out where taxpayers got screwed were then harassed for their concern.
You have to wonder with Basic IDIQ’s documented past indiscretions, lack of experience in this kind of construction work and extremely irresponsible bid why they even made it to the agenda today. You also have to wonder why a cover-up excuse was used for pulling it when it’s well known that the mayor and others have been badgered about awarding the contract.
The second bid they screwed with was what amounts to a construction “on call” contract. Every few years this same contract is awarded to a company. Construction companies give unit prices for certain specified work that will need to be done – curb, gutter, sidewalks, paving (asphalt and concrete) etc. et al. The city uses previous years’ “on call” type of work to estimate the contract size and then puts that to council. There’s no guarantee that the construction company will see all of the money in the contract – in this case it’s $4.2 million. These contracts are very dangerous because they are 760 days long and the price of asphalt or concrete could spike during that period and the contractor still has to provide their services at those original prices.
Council members had a problem with the contract and their questions were quite silly. Watching them question it was a little uncomfortable. You got the feeling that city staff wasn’t doing their best to answer their questions, but you wouldn’t expect they’d have to. It’s a simple concept. I could only assume there were unseen forces behind the move to delay the award of this contract. I had seen this before and it was just down the street in that all glass building next to the jail. There was no reason for this to happen unless the elected officials were told by someone that the wrong company was slated to be awarded the contract.
My heart sank watching that go down. It’s still in my stomach as I write this. There’s just been too much of this tinkering with contract awards to ignore. What’s the real situation here? Have they moved the county shenanigans of the past to the city council of today? God I hope not.