Florida Keys News
Village still bypassing bid process

ISLAMORADA -- When the Florida Auditor General's Office in March released the findings of its 2011 probe of village operations, one area auditors keyed upon was the municipality's contracting practices.

Auditors critiqued the village's approach to awarding contract extensions, singling out the five-year no-bid contract extension the Village Council awarded to garbage hauler Veolia Environmental in 2008. The extension led to a 19 percent increase in the village's solid waste assessment the following year, the village acknowledged.

Auditors also looked at the procedures employed by the village in cases where it has waived competitive bidding requirements, concluding that explanations of such waivers should be required under village code.

In response, the administration of Village Manger Ed Koconis wrote to auditors that in practice such documentation has always been provided, but the city planned to change the Islamorada purchasing ordinance to make it mandatory.

"I want to get everything addressed," Koconis told the Free Press around that time.

More of the same

But, six months after the audit, no such ordinance has been brought forth for a vote. Meanwhile, the village has continued to routinely award contract extensions and amendments, new work authorizations and brand-new contracts without going through competitive bidding.

Since May, in fact, the council has awarded eight such extensions, authorizations and contracts -- and all but one unanimously.

Some of the contracts have been relatively minor prizes. For example, the council in June extended the contract of U.S. Water, which maintains the north Plantation Key wastewater plant, but only for what is expected to be a short transition time, until Reynolds Water Islamorada, which did go through a public bidding process, takes over the operations for the long-term.

In a more recent case, the village waived competitive bidding to award a $7.1 million contract for construction of the middle Plantation Key sewer collection system to J.A. LaRocco Enterprises. But the move was only a safety measure, put in place to ensure that the village didn't miss the Sept. 1 deadline for a $20 million state grant in the case of a problem developing with Reynolds. With Reynolds now on board, the contract is not expected to be carried out.

But other contracts that have been awarded, extended and amended without a competitive process are likely to have more lasting affects.

The largest such award came in May, when the council supported a work authorization of up to $750,000 for the engineering firm Wade Trim, which is tasked with monitoring and watchdogging the sewer work of Reynolds.

The authorization was the eighth the village has extended to Wade Trim since November 2010, when the council selected the firm for a $40,000 contract under which it ranked the qualifications of firms that were interested in building, operating and financing the village-wide sewer system. The seven subsequent authorizations have amounted to upward of $1 million.

Koconis last week equated Wade Trim to a village-contracted engineering department, explaining that continuity is a key reason why new engineering oversight work related to the sewer project has not been put out to bid.

"When you have a big project, it takes a while to get people up to speed," he said.

Other contracts have also sailed through without a public bidding process.

In May, the council supported a $152,000 amendment to the village's contract with the consultant DLT Enterprises, which provides technical support for Islamorada's building permit software.

The village in June waived competitive bidding procedures in order to select AT&T to provide the town's cellular service, replacing its former vendor Sprint.

"Staff looked around and did research to find out who would have good service," Koconis said. "We were looking at first responder service."

In July, the council waived competitive bidding again, this time to retain a consulting company called Adjusters International, which provides disaster recovery services in the case of a hurricane. The move, village Finance Director Maria Aguilar explained in a missive ahead of the vote, was taken because the town was happy with the work of Adjusters International after 2005's Hurricane Wilma.

On that same day in July, the council approved a one-year, $47,500 contract extension with the firm Cherry, Bekaert & Holland to conduct the town's audit in the coming year. The extension is the third and final one allowed under the contract, and a new auditor will be selected through a public process next year, Aguilar wrote in another memorandum for the council.

Perhaps the most controversial no-bid contract the village has entered into since last year's state audit was awarded unanimously by the Village Council last month to MTS Software Solutions, which will be paid $154,000 to digitize 1.8 million village documents.

A fight over that contract brewed in house for months, with village I.T. Director Stu Bautz pushing for MTS, while then-Village Clerk Debra Eastman negotiated with a firm called MCCI. Eastman resigned shortly after Koconis selected MTS.

The fact that the contract wasn't bid competitively also raised an objection from Melody Mengle, whose Tampa-based Advanced Data Solutions company specializes in digitizing government documents and, she said, holds the Monroe County digitizing contract.

In an interview with the Free Press, Mengle said that ADS likely could have bid the project for $50,000 less than MTS, had the work only been put out for competitive procurement.

"Could you have used that $50,000 for something else?" she wrote in a subsequent email. "What about a property tax refund or less fees for building permits? An even better idea would be a cash reserve for things like public sewer systems in the Keys."

Bautz, though, said the comparison isn't apples to apples. ADS, he said, would deliver discs containing the digitized documents to the village. But those documents would still have had to have been imported into the village's operating system at a cost. In contrast, MTS already provides operating software support for the village. Though it is not listed in the contract deliverables, Bautz said the company is including the importing in the $154,000 cost.

Bautz, however, said he didn't know how much importing would cost as a stand-alone contract.

Still on the list

Even as the village has moved ahead with numerous non-competitive contract awards over the past six months, it has failed to take up the auditors' suggestion to tighten the town's purchasing ordinance.

"But it is on the list. It will be coming soon," Koconis said last week.

In the meantime, councilmen Dave Purdo and Ted Blackburn, both of whom have voted consistently for the non-competitive contracts, work authorizations and contract extensions and amendments over the past six months, said they might take a different approach in the future.

Blackburn said he'd look at each no-compete situation individually. He defended, for example, the $750,000 Wade Trim authorization, noting that the company was initially contracted after a competitive process. But he said the questions raised by ADS on the digitizing contract have peaked his interest.

Despite his "yes" votes, Purdo has raised the issue of competitive bidding at times over the past six months, including before the MTS vote.

"There's a couple of them I wouldn't change my vote because I think they were good choices," he said. "But the problem is, how do we know if we don't put it out for competitive bidding?"

rsilk@keysnews.com

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