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Public bidding for city projects may be altered

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Friday January 04, 2002

With the Central Library remodeling project coming in late and over budget and the same contractor being awarded another lucrative public contract, some are questioning the City Charter’s requirement to accept the “lowest responsible bid” for capital projects. 

City officials defended the policy saying it is probably the best way to assure fairness in selecting contractors for public projects. The city awards contracts for millions of dollars every year for construction projects, road work and sewer replacement, most of which comes in on time and reasonably close to budget. 

Public Works Director Renee Cardinaux also defended the Central Library contractor, Arntz Builders, saying that the company has a history of quality work, although a reputation for bringing some jobs in late. 

“I’m familiar with two projects they did in Santa Clara County, the juvenile hall and the district attorney’s offices and they were both good jobs,” he said. 

But Councilmember Betty Olds said the charter requirement is not specific enough and some disreputable contractors have become adept at manipulating the bidding process by submitting very low bids. Then, once the bid is accepted, she said, they increase their profits by altering the project through “change orders,” which drag out completion dates. Olds declined to go on the record with the names of those she was speaking about. 

In addition, Olds said the lowest, most responsible bid requirement does not go far enough to protect the city from shoddy work. 

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said similar bidding requirements were incorporated into many city charters and state building codes during the early part of the century as a mechanism to prevent government officials from awarding public contracts to business associates and family members. 

But in August, when it became apparent that the Central Library was going to be approximately 17-months late and several million dollars over budget, the City Council asked the Public Works Department to study the situation and recommend possible improvements to the contractor selection process. The report is to be presented to the council in March. 

Cardinaux said the lowest responsible bidder requirement is not perfect, but has worked well for the most part. He added that choosing responsible contractors is a difficult process and that even the best contractors encounter unforeseen problems, especially in large remodeling projects, that can increase budgets and delay completion dates. 

“The pluses of accepting the lowest responsible bid is that it’s the most clear-cut way to award a contract without having favoritism involved. It keeps everybody’s hands clean.” he said. “The bad side is that government clients are perceived to have deep pockets and that sometimes attracts bidders who think they can get more money out of their clients.” 

Cardinaux said that Arntz Builders was not trying to squeeze money out of the city, but rather was not prepared to deal with problems related to a very complex project, which included a major addition, seismic retrofitting and historical restoration. 

“Arntz Builders are not bad builders. They’re not sitting at the Central Library trying to rip the city off,” he said. “The job was very complex and they didn’t manage it very tightly.” 

Cardinaux also pointed to two other major public projects, the retrofitting and remodel of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center and the construction of the Tsukamoto Public Safety Building, both of which came in close to the bids and on time.  

Arntz was also awarded a $30 million contract by the Berkeley Unified School District to build a series of buildings that will include a food court, gymnasium and administrative offices. BUSD is not bound by the Berkeley City Charter but is required by a similar state law to accept the lowest and most responsible bid. 

BUSD Manager of Facilities and Planning Lou Jones said he was comfortable with Arntz Builders because they carried out a $5 million remodeling project at Washington School in 1996 with very few problems. “I think they were about two months late but that’s about industry standard on large projects,” he said. 

He added that it is very difficult to research a contractor’s background to determine the “responsible” aspect of the bidding requirement. He said construction problems such as weather delays and site conditions are present in almost every moderate-to-large project.  

“When you’re looking into the past work of a contractor, you almost always find problems and everybody is typically blaming everybody else,” he said. “It’s hard to know who is being straight forward when the builder is saying ‘the architect’s drawings are lousy’ and the architect is saying ‘the contractor’s (lazy and) trying to steal money from you.’ 

Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz said the city is looking into possible charter amendments that might better protect the city. 

“We’re exploring our options,” he said. “If there is a better way to avoid favoritism and assure more responsible work we want to look at it.” 

He said the city is looking closely at UC Berkeley’s policy of weeding out unscrupulous or incompetent builders by examining their work history before accepting their bids. 

Cardinaux said the university’s policy has advantages but also drawbacks. “You can examine their financial worth, safety record and change order history and that’s still no guarantee that a construction project will go smoothly,” he said. “It’s a very complicated problem and for very many years, very qualified experts have struggled for an answer, including me.”