Sidewalk program crumbles on council floor

Residents who signed up for the city’s 50/50 sidewalk program, in which the city and residents split the cost of sidewalk repairs or replacement, may have to wait until next year to move forward with their planned improvements after bid discrepancies left the Rockford City Council divided.

Bids from contractors were solicited three separate times already this year for the program, leaving little time now to complete the work this summer, as the council failed to award the project again July 27.

City staff recommended Acura, Inc., of Bensenville, be awarded its $176,000 bid, but a Rockford company, AA Construction, offered to do the job for more than $27,000 less. As a result, about half of the council feels technicalities in bid specifications are causing the city to pay more for work than it needs to.

The measure to award the bid to Acura almost didn’t make it out of committee July 27, but Ald. Pat Curran (R-2) cast the vote needed to put the issue before the full council for debate.

“The reason that [AA’s] bid, the lowest bid, was rejected as ‘unresponsible’ was because of what Public Works considered to be an improper weighting of the line items,” Curran explained, “that some were bid too light, and others were, perhaps, a little heavier. The net result was the numbers that rolled in, and when the smoke cleared, the bottom line was the same—that AA Construction was $30,000 less than the rest of them.”

Several of AA’s line items had been submitted with unrealistic values of 1 cent apiece, which raised some eyebrows.

Despite the significantly lower bid from AA, Curran said he had nearly conceded that the council’s hands were tied to award the project to Acura, because staff had asserted AA’s bid was improperly weighted.

During the July 27 Finance and Personnel Committee meeting, however, AA attorney Gino Galluzzo noted the council had previously awarded other improperly weighted bids for other projects.

“You only need to look at last year’s city sidewalk and curb contract, where two of the five pay items were identified with $1 per unit,” Galluzzo noted. “Those pay items were undervalued, and in no way could that work be performed for those values.

“That practice was previously allowed, and this application allows staff to apply rules in an arbitrary manner,” he added.

After having been provided evidence of similarly unbalanced bids being awarded by the council, Curran acknowledged: “We’ve done that in the past. There’s precedent for this, and I see no reason why we should give it to an outside concern for $30,000 more money, when we, in fact, have a responsible bidder, in my opinion, here in Rockford.”

Ald. Carl Wasco (D-4), who berated fellow aldermen a week earlier for not doing their homework, argued the city has never intentionally passed an unbalanced bid. He also stressed the council must operate by the rules it’s adopted.

“I’m being instructed by the professionals that do this on a daily basis that someone in this bidding process didn’t meet those requirements,” Wasco explained. “I see a dangerous slope we’re going down if we start circumventing staff in a way that we go against our own ordinances and rules.”

Although he said he understands why some aldermen may want to change the policy, Wasco noted the time to do it is before bids are requested, not after they’ve been submitted.

City Administrator Jim Ryan stood by the requirements the city adheres to in the process.

“The specifications have worked,” he asserted. “They worked in the past, and they’ll continue to work in the future.”

Additionally, Ald. Lenny Jacobson (D-6) argued AA—a non-union contractor—simply doesn’t have the accredited apprenticeship program required for all city contracts worth $50,000 or more.

Ryan suggested AA chose to split some of its pay items with TCI Concrete in an attempt to meet the city’s apprenticeship requirements.

“To me, that gets to the heart of this whole debate—the apprenticeship program and the desire to meet the apprenticeship program, I believe, has dictated how the bid came in,” he said.

Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) expressed frustration so much time had been spent on re-bidding a single sidewalk program. If it weren’t for the hundreds of citizens waiting for sidewalk improvements, he said, Mark would like to see all of the bids thrown out so the city can tighten up its bid specifications, thereby preventing similar disagreements in the future.

Unbalanced bids are nothing new to the public and private sectors, Ald. Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7) argued, however.

“This is not uncommon, to lowball on one line item, and increase it on another,” she noted. “It’s in the bidding world every day. We have accepted these type of bid for years on end.”

Thompson-Kelly told colleagues, “There’s no reason—no reason—not to accept the low bidder.

“If we don’t have the qualified people to write the specs, then we need to take a look at that,” she added. “But we should not jeopardize the citizens having sidewalks and curbs, because a particular item that we want to nitpick on is not in this bid.

“That’s not saying they will pay a penny for the item,” Thompson-Kelly said, referring to the questionable entries on AA’s bid. “They’re saying that they’re gonna meet your qualifications, they’re gonna meet your specifications, they’re gonna meet your deadline, and this is what it’s gonna cost you. That’s what we want.”

Ald. Venita Hervey (D-5) offered an amendment whereby AA’s $148,772.52 bid would be awarded, not Acura’s $176,000 one, but the motion failed in a 9-4 vote. Aldermen Joe Sosnowski (R-1), Mark, Wasco, Jacobson, Nancy Johnson (D-8), Karen Elyea (D-11), John Beck (R-12), Linda McNeely (D-13) and Bill Robertson (I-14) voted “no.”

After more than 30 minutes of debate, the original motion to award the bid to Acura nearly prevailed in a 7-6 vote, but eight affirmative votes were necessary for passage. Aldermen Curran, Mark, Hervey, Thompson-Kelly, Bill Timm (R-9) and McNeely voted “no.”

The measure died, sending the 50/50 sidewalk program back to the drawing board.

Ryan said, “We need to get moving, but obviously, we’re getting to the point where if we don’t make a contract award, we’re gonna have to go back to the citizens that have signed up for this program, and make a different measure for next year.”

from the July 29-August 4, 2009, issue

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