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I’m sorry … dog ate my proposal and cost estimate

ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer

(Oct. 12, 2012) The proverbial “calm before the storm” seemed to have hit City Council this week, as the only uncertain action at Tuesday’s work session came from the city’s not infrequent confusion regarding the tardiness of project bids.

The opening of such bids – although rarely discussed, reported, or even paid attention to by those in the audience – frequently takes up a significant portion of the beginning of council’s Tuesday afternoon meetings.

Whenever the city seeks an outside contractor for a given purchase or service, a Request for Proposals (RFP) is put out to solicit outlines and cost estimates from relevant vendors. When submissions are received, they are held in their packages and not opened until the specified council work session, in which all bids for a given project are scheduled to be opened.

The deadline for proposals is typically given as 11 a.m. on the Tuesday that the bids are to be opened. But because UPS, Fed Ex, and some other popular carriers do not deliver to City Hall until just after 11 o’clock, make the deadline can be difficult.

This week, the council moved to accept four late bids for the wastewater treatment plant’s chemical supply after it was discovered that UPS had attempted to deliver the envelopes on Monday, only to find that City Hall was closed for Columbus Day. The packages were re-delivered on Tuesday, but at 11:30.

“There was a stamp on them saying [when they first tried to be delivered],” Council Secretary Lloyd Martin said. As secretary, one of Martin’s duties is to read the final cost estimate of each bid for the record.

Of more concern, however, seemed to be that one of the city’s frequent contractors, Whitman, Requardt, and Associates, who designed the expansion of the convention center, had failed to submit their bid for another major project on time.

The city is planning to build a new boat ramp on 64th Street, with a stronger launch area and parking that will solve the space issue at the city’s current municipal ramp on 94th Street.

Whitman’s bid was not late due to the holiday, however.

“I asked him specifically if this was a case where they had tried to deliver it, but were unable due to the holiday, and it was not,” said City Engineer Terry McGean. “He stated that they had mailed it out yesterday.”

McGean said he did not receive a phone call letting him know that the proposal would be late until after 11 a.m.

“He said they worked on it all weekend,” McGean said.

The shuffleboard-like bidding strategy of many contractors – working as long as you can to cut costs without going over the deadline – has previously been noted.

“On a big bid, I’ve seen them actually on their cell phones in the lobby [at 11 o’clock], waiting for their boss to tell them what number to write down,” city Public Works Director Hal Adkins said recently. “It’s actually pretty common in the industry.”

Only Councilman Joe Hall has consistently objected to the acceptance of any late bids, contending that bidders should simply submit their proposals well ahead of time to allow for any sort of freak incident that may delay their arrival. Accepting what are essentially “the dog ate my homework” excuses for projects that are frequently worth millions of dollars puts the city on a slippery slope.

On Tuesday, Councilwoman Margaret Pillas asked City Solicitor Guy Ayres if it was, in fact, clear to him that the city was using a defensible rationale in deciding what to accept and what not to accept.

“Can you see the clear line that we’re drawing here?” Pillas asked, in regards to accepting the late chemical bids, but rejecting Whitman’s.

In the case of the holiday delays, Ayres replied that the distinction seemed pretty obvious to him.

But the punctuation mark on late RFP confusion is that, quite often, only the concerned staff member in the room actually knows what the product or service is. For most technical proposals – particularly those in the Public Works department – elected officials wouldn’t know what they’re accepting or rejecting.

“You seconded the motion,” joked Council President Jim Hall some weeks ago, after colleague Brent Ashley had supported a motion to recognize proposals, “Now you have to tell everyone what it is.”

The answer: a “clarigester.” What it does, or why it’s so expensive, would be another matter altogether.

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