City bid process criticized

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January 30, 2019

By Tesa Glass

MT. VERNON — City Councilman Jim Rippy said he doesn’t agree with how the city chooses professional services, leading to disagreements with the council, city staff and the city attorney.

Rippy’s comments happened after a resolution was presented for a letter of proposal from Round Table Design for engineering of nine miles of water main replacement projects was presented to the council.

City Manager Mary Ellen Bechtel explained the water main replacements are slated for 2020 and 2021 using an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency loan. Round Table Design submitted a proposal for the engineering at $265,000 on the project, but added two items to their final proposal — maintaining the city’s water modeling study including the recent changes to the pump station on Eagle Court; and working with the city to create the Illinois Historic Preservation documentation that would allow the city to demolish the L&N water tower and do a 3D model of the tower so it can be replaced with a 500,000 gallon tower. The final cost for all projects is $295,000.

“I’m absolutely opposed to it and I want to make it clear it’s not because of the firms not being reputable, not having good histories or good reputations; or any of the work Mary Ellen, that you’ve done or the engineers have done,” Rippy said. “I think that type of work should be competitively bid in order to get the best value for the citizens.”

Councilman Donte Moore said he attended the Utility Committee meeting in which the project was discussed in detail. He said using the IEPA loan, up to half of the engineering costs could qualify for debt forgiveness.

“This is also the company that has our modeling study,” Moore said. “If we gave this project to another company, we would have to pay for that again.”
Bechtel said she has done due diligence to be sure the city qualifies for the IEPA loan and follows all its requirements.

“For this particular project, using IEPA money, we have procured these services in a manner I am 100 percent assured and (know) in my heart, that this will be included with no problem in the IEPA loan,” Bechtel said. “And I feel confident that we did a good job, that we have a good price, that it is fair, and it will qualify for the federal requirements for procurement of services through IEPA.”

“Madam city manager, I do not agree,” Rippy said. “I think these are the type of issues that to get the best value for the citizens they need to be competitively bid assuming quality is a given because I think all the firms are qualified and that they all have good reputations. I think that the work you guys do is good, but I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the citizens to be awarding $295,000.”

Discussion was held on the “matrix” which is a tool used to qualify professional services. Rippy said Round Table were the lowest; Moore and Councilman Jeff May said Rippy was wrong.

“Not on this particular matrix,” May said. “They were low on a different matrix that looked for different qualifications. I was at that meeting too and that’s exactly what happened.”

Rippy asserted the only thing that should change on a matrix is project availability.

“They weren’t as available for the (Community Development Assistance Program) as they were for this particular project,” Bechtel said.

Rippy said he goes back to 2014 when he questioned bidding professional services and his research into a Supreme Court case involving the government and the National Society of Professional Engineers.
“I believe when you talk about that kind of money you should competitively bid based on the cost of those engineering services, or you are not doing what is in the best interest of the taxpayer and that’s all I’ve got to say,” Rippy said.

Mayor John Lewis said he wants the public to know what is going on.
“You can see how passionate every one of the council people are concerning taxpayer monies,” Lewis said. “I want the public to take away the council is doing a very good job on contracts. We make sure there is no favoritism in awarding these contracts. We kept the taxpayer in mind in making any decision. There are a few problems sometimes on requests for qualifications, but make no mistake, there are a few problems on the low bid process. They all have pros and cons and neither one of them, I think, are the end-all for everything.”

Lewis also said the council had discussion with city attorneys who said the city could bid the services, but would have to use city funds for the engineering if the loan guidelines aren’t followed and could forfeit the loan forgiveness incentive.

“If we want to be assured that the engineering can be included in the loan for IEPA, the qualification-based selection, which is what we used, is what is suggested,” Bechtel said.

Rippy questioned whether the city has ever bid professional services, which City Engineer Brad Ruble gave two recent examples of bidding only engineering services — the Ambassador bridge project and the EPA loan submittal process. Rippy then wanted to hear the legal opinion.

“I think you’ve had the information from the city manager and from the staff that tells you just that, Jim,” Howard said. “The question of selection of professional services is one that frequently does not lend itself appropriately to bidding. Because what you are looking for is the best ultimate result for the money. It strikes me that your staff has gone to extreme lengths to be sure that that happens. And just to say we always have to bid professional services is, in my view, incorrect both as a matter of law and as a matter of practice.”

“Then explain to me why the government sued the National Society of Professional Engineers versus the United States because of that problem,” Rippy countered.

“I’m not aware of that particular case, but I’m also not aware of any case that says you have to bid professional services,” Howard answered.
The council approved the agreement, with Rippy the lone no vote.

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