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Gamble on low bidder came up short

Posted: November 30, 2011 - 12:06am  |  Updated: November 30, 2011 - 4:50am
Jeffery Harris Trucking Co. workers build drainage structures in Springlakes as part of a major flooding project. Commissioners are taking Harris off the project for failing to complete it on time.  File photo by Jim Blaylock
File photo by Jim Blaylock
Jeffery Harris Trucking Co. workers build drainage structures in Springlakes as part of a major flooding project. Commissioners are taking Harris off the project for failing to complete it on time.

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Columbia County commissioners had a choice back in May: Award a Springlakes drainage project to the low bidder, Jeffery Harris Trucking, despite misgivings from the project engineer; or pay an extra $200,000 to get the work done by the next bidder, Beam Construction, as the engineer urged.

They rolled the dice, went with the low bidder – and now are kicking Harris off the $814,000 project for failing to complete it on time. It might now cost even more than Beam’s original, higher bid to have another contractor finish the job.

The only person entitled to say “I told you so” is the engineer who, despite his expertise, nonetheless was making a recommendation for spending someone else’s money: yours. The rest of the armchair critics of the commission? Give it a rest.

Keep in mind: rejecting lower bidders for various and sundry reasons and going with a “more qualified” yet higher bidder is precisely what keeps the Richmond County Purchasing Department in perpetual hot water. Rejecting low bids in favor of higher, but subjectively “better,” bids has caused near continual payouts in lawsuits as low bidders have challenged what they believed to be arbitrary rejections by Augusta officials.

When conservatives talk about making government “run like a business,” this is the kind of thing they’re often talking about. After all, a private business can hire anyone it wants because its own money is at risk.

Government officials, however, aren’t spending their own money; they’re spending taxpayers’ money. Sure, it might sound good to believe commissioners could just pick the company they believe best suited to do a particular job, regardless of price – especially now that Harris Trucking is in the rear-view mirror. But just how quickly would public confidence, and the confidence of private contractors, erode if it appeared the bidding process had no integrity?

Further, how quickly would the commission critics charge, as they have with Augusta’s purchasing department, that the company receiving the award was merely getting it because of favoritism that had nothing to do with quality?

There’s little doubt that the bid process is a gamble. In this particular case, Columbia County commissioners rolled the dice and lost. That’s rare, but it’s going to happen. Anyone who wants it done differently should be prepared to make a case for eliminating the bid process altogether.

After all, with 20-20 hindsight, why bother with bids at all?

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Comments (1)

Little Lamb

Agree

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of this editorial. One project where the contractor bit off more than he could chew should not jettison the principle that government projects should choose the low bidder.

Hopefully, this event at Springlakes will spur county employees to write clearer and more specific specifications in the future. It is difficult to write good specifications.

Also, when a selected contractor fails to perform, he should be banned from any more county bids for at least ten years.

Hopefully the specifications for this project did not allow "pay as you go" payments. If so, Harris Trucking probably has all the money they wanted already. Future contracts should have the contractor foot the entire construction cost and receive one lump sum payment when the county manager certifies the project meets all the specifications.

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