Jail bids out; commission in the dark


One county commissioner's inquiry about the status of a project led to a discussion of how and when the commission would be apprised of bids being let.

When Commissioner Ron Gentry asked for an update on the long-stalled expansion of the Valencia County Detention Center last week, he seemed surprised that the bid for the job had been sent out and staff had a low bidder in hand.

"The bids have been received and a contractor selected. We are working with the detention center and finance," County Manager Bruce Swingle said.

Swingle said while the county has a bit more than $1.1 million available for the project in gross receipts funds, the low bid still came in about $20,000 over.

Gentry asked who the contractor was and who picked them. Swingle said he wasn't sure who the contractor was, but a selection committee of Valencia County Purchasing Agent Mike Vinyard and staff had made the final recommendation.

"We have had a protest filed and that has thrown a delay into the process," Swingle said.

He added that the protest had been filed after the deadline, but county attorneys were looking into the matter.

County attorney Dave Pato said at last week's meeting that the county's response to the protest should go out shortly and be resolved in a day or two.

"The commission is precluded from moving forward until it is resolved," Pato said. "Once it is resolved, we will send notice to all bidders and then send the contract to the (commissioners) for consideration."

For several years, county commissioners have been struggling to find a solution to the overcrowding in the men's part of the jail and the deteriorated condition of the women's section.

After it was realized that the GRT being collected for the financing of the original jail had a surplus, the commissioners began looking at expanding the facility.

The most cost effective method was a pod system that consisted of ready-made, two-person cells that could be stacked and then enclosed in a shell. The pods were built by a Colorado manufacturer and the county contracted with Bosque Farms construction company Lone Mountain Construction for the expansion.

Work on the jail stopped in April 2011 because the contractor told the county the project could not be completed for the agreed upon $1.1 million.

The county and Lone Mountain spent the next three to four months trying to hammer out an alternative concept for the project and another two months in mediation.

County commissioners reached a settlement agreement with Lone Mountain and in January, the company received a settlement payment for $25,276.30.

Then in March, shortly after announcing his resignation, then County Manager Eric Zamora said the project was getting back on track and anticipated putting the project back out to bid in April.

Zamora left the county at the end of March, and Swingle took over in May.

Apparently the bid did not go out in the spring. Instead, legal ads announcing the bids were published in the News-Bulletin on Aug. 11 and 15. Responses were due back to the county by 2 p.m. on Aug. 29 and were opened on Sept. 5.

According to Vinyard, the county received four bids, all from Albuquerque companies. The low bid was from AIC General Contractor at $1,160,161. They were followed by ESA Construction at $1,238,000, Janstar Builders at $1,243,700 and Gerald Martin at $1,274,928.

Janstar filed a protest against both AIC and ESA, saying AIC failed to list its subcontractors for installing the cell doors, and ESA failed to supply its electrical company qualification. The company asked that both be eliminated from consideration for the contract.

Even though the protest was a day late, in an interview after the commission meeting, Vinyard said the most prudent course was to at least review the issues Janstar raised.

"If there is a problem, I want to know," Vinyard said. "Everything we do is in the best interest of the residents."

During the commission meeting, Gentry asked who did the interviews and selected the contractor.

Pato advised the commissioners that the county was "statutorily required to award to the lowest qualified bidder. This is not an RFP with an evaluation."

The attorney continued, saying a bid sets out a certain set of qualifications bidders need to meet, such as being certified in their industry.

"So long as they meet those qualifications they are considered responsive and the county is required to award the contract to the lowest bidder," he said.

Gentry said he understood that.

"But this is $1.1 million construction project and you're saying it's already been bid out, people interviewed and a contract awarded, and so far no one in this room knows who, what when and where," Gentry said. "Is this a new policy? I know we normally select the lowest, but usually they bring all the bids to the commissioners and we choose. What happened to that process?"

Pato said the protest stopped the process.

"The commission will award the contract. Mr. Vinyard doesn't award the contract," he said.

Gentry said he initially just wanted to know the status of the project, and "now find we're way deep into picking a contractor."

Pato began to speak, but Gentry overrode him.

"Let me finish. Have we changed the procurement process? This commission is pretty much in the dark; well some of us are," he said. "This is $1 million of public money."

Swingle said the best answers would be from the purchasing agent.

Commission Chairman Donald Holliday asked that Vinyard be brought into the meeting.

After his arrival, Gentry told Vinyard that he didn't know the county had awarded contracts and interviewed bidders.

"Usually we look at the bidders and discuss. So far, I don't know if anything has been brought to the commission in public meeting," the commissioner said. "I wasn't aware the contracting bids had been awarded. Maybe we need to discuss this in executive. We are getting deeper and deeper."

Vinyard responded that he wanted to be clear that they were not mixing up procurement processes.

Since this was a bid, it was done through a "very regimented process" with a set of requirements and an invitation to bid put out, Vinyard said.

"There are no interviews and committees. The only evaluation is if they meet all the requirements," he said. "If they miss any, the bids are thrown out and of those left standing, the lowest bidder is awarded the contract."

Vinyard said he was planning to bring the contract before the commission on the Oct. 3 meeting, but because the protest was filed, pulled the action item back from the agenda.

"There was no intent to do anything behind the commission's back, heaven forbid," he said. "At this time, our plan is to get the protest resolved and the contract on the agenda for next meeting. We will present all the bids and see if you want to accept the low bid."

Gentry said the process had "always been different. We have always been apprised of even the smallest contract. And especially one of this magnitude."

Vinyard said he would be glad to give the commissioners monthly briefings on pending procurements.

Commissioner Georgia Otero-Kirkham asked if any local companies responded to the invitation to bid. Vinyard said there were none.

Gentry said part of the problem could be only publishing the notification of bids in the legal section of the newspaper.

"Who really reads that? If these were brought out in public meetings, maybe we would get local response," he said. "I know several local contractors who might want to respond."

Vinyard said he had a differing opinion.

"There are people in companies who do nothing but review legal sections. Those who are serious, that's why they buy the newspaper," he said. "I don't think we fall down on notification; it's common practice."

Saying she and the other commissioners liked to see business stay in Valencia County, Otero-Kirkham asked Vinyard if there was a process to alert local contractors that bids were coming up.

"Maybe give them a little head start," she said. "Maybe a list of locals we could send a letter to before (bids) really get out in the public."

Vinyard said he agreed conceptually, but providing certain contractors with "insider information" was setting the county up for a protest.

"There is certainly nothing wrong with a courtesy notification that 'a procurement started today' because the general public is aware," Vinyard said. "I would have no problem doing that the day the bid became public."

-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.