Campaign contributor wins big award for replacing Baltimore’s water meters

A small Pennsylvania company with deep political pockets gets a $25 million contract.

l:b water hq selinsgrove

Headquarters of L/B Water Service in Selinsgrove, Pa.

Photo by: L/B Water Service

Baltimore has selected a small Pennsylvania company – and large contributor to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s election campaign – to supply water meters to city residents.

L/B Water Service, of Selinsgrove, Pa., was awarded $25 million today by the Board of Estimates to provide new meters after city officials found a low bid of $20.5 million by another company to be “non-responsive” to the city’s technical requirements.

The award was based partly on price and partly on the product advantages it offered the city, according to water bureau officials.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake voted to approve the contract with L/B Water, which contributed $6,000 to her election campaign last year, according to Maryland Election Board records.

CEO Fred Steimling said the contract represents the largest in L/B’s history. “We’ve done other large meter contracts, but nothing of this size,” he said today in a brief interview.

A longtime supplier of meter parts to the city, L/B Water put together its successful bid with the help of two vendors who were also generous contributors to the mayor last year – Grant Capital Management and R.E. Harrington Plumbing & Heating Co.

In its bid letter to the city, L/B Water said it had “teamed up with Grant Capital Management Inc. to provide financing for meter procurement should Baltimore so desire” and had recently leased warehouse space from Harrington so that “product inventory and transportation support will occur locally through Harrington.”

The  company took these initiatives, Steimling wrote, to provide “meaningful MBE participation.” As a commodity contract, the award did not require inclusion of minority or women-owned businesses.

L/B Water's bid letter explained its interest in partnering with Grant Capital and R. E. Harrington to promote minority participation. (From bid document, City Comptroller's Office)

L/B Water's bid letter explained its interest in partnering with Grant Capital and R. E. Harrington. (From bid document, City Comptroller's Office)

Before last fall’s election, The Brew identified the Grant firm as one of the top contributors to Rawlings-Blake’s campaign.

The company specializes in the esoteric world of municipal lease financing and has provided $140 million in financing to Baltimore City through several master lease contracts.

Grant contributed $24,000 to the mayor’s reelection on the same day that L/B Water made its donation (Jan. 10, 2011) through the names of its founder, James P. Grant; his wife Judy Grant; his sister Linda Grant; and other relatives and associates.

R.E. Harrington, a leading city sewer contractor, added $4,000 to the mayor’s election coffers on the following day, according to state records.

Contributions Don’t Influence

Rawlings-Blake voted in favor of the L/B  award today at the Board of Estimates. Typically, an elected official on the panel abstains from voting on an item involving a campaign contributor or other potential conflict of interest.

The mayor’s spokesman, Ryan O’Doherty, said he could not comment on the specifics of campaign contributions as a government employee.

However, he added, “campaign donations have not and will not have any effect on the Rawlings-Blake administration’s actions, period. The mayor’s record on ethics, transparency and good government is sound, honest and undisputed.”

Until the mayor’s campaign last year, L/B Water had never before made a political contribution in Maryland, according to state records.

After a brief conversation today, CEO Steimling did not return a promised phone call to discuss the meter contract more thoroughly.

The other companies bidding on the contract did not make any political donations in Maryland last year, a review of the records indicate.

Low Bidder Disqualified

L/B Water became the low bidder after the city disqualified Badger Meter Inc. for proposing to use the ARB meter as opposed to the specified AMI  device.

An ARB (Automatic Reading and Billing) meter allows for remote “drive-by” readings by water inspectors, while the AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) device permits meter readings to be remotely transmitted to a central office.

Rudolph Chow, chief of the bureau of water and wastewater, said his office views AMI devices as  more economical over the long run and will provide the city with superior service.

Today’s award is just beginning of a program by the Department of Public Works to replace 163,000 residential and about 650 compound meters in Baltimore City.

L/B Water will use AMI meters made by Sensus. One of the world’s leading meter manufacturers (along with Badger), Sensus did not bid on today’s contract.

Another leading manufacturer, Neptune, was  awarded a $2.2 million contract today to provide intermediate and turbo/turbine meters, while Mueller Systems was low bidder (at $9 million) to supply fire service meters that use 3- and 7-in. pipes.

Altogether there were five bidders for today’s contracts, with two bidders (Badger and Elster) rejected as non-responsive.

The winning bids were based 60% on price and 40% on technical and service aspects, as scored by a review committee made up of experts, according to city bid records.

The supply contract with L/B Water is expected to last through 2016, while the entire meter replacement program – including new meters in Baltimore County – is liable to continue through 2020.

For information on the company that submitted the low bid for the installation of the new meters in Baltimore, see this Brew exclusive.

With about 100 employees, L/B Water is a private company that was founded in 1970 and chiefly serves rural areas of Pennsylvania with water-works and sewer products and services.

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  • PCCP

    from your article:

     L/B Water became the low bidder after the city disqualified Badger Meter
    Inc. for proposing to use the ARB meter as opposed to the specified
    AMI  device.”

    all of the campaign donation stuff is immaterial. you have to bid a contract per the plans and specs. if they want an AMI device, thats what you have to give them! its kind of cutting edge, so it doesn’t surprise me in the least that Badger would try and submit something they probably are already licensed to distribute, and not what the city specified ( which they probably are not licensed to do so).

    I do know that the meter installation contract wanted specifically the
    capability for these things to be read without unscrewing them. which
    means the lids are now made out of plastic and not metal.

    now you could make the argument that there should have been some competition for the product, and I don’t think you would be wrong. however, if they want a meter that automatically reports things to a computer, that does represent a significant benefit to the owner in the long run versus someone who then has to manually enter all that data in.

    because that is a lot of man-hours that tax payers will ultimately have to pay for.

  • Tom Kiefaber

    I just returned from the barely announced 6PM Baltimore City meeting at the War Memorial building where citizens can address concerns to the Board of Estimates (BOE) about the proposed 2013 city budget. My two minutes of testimony echoed that of spirited citizen activist Kim Trueheart. The total lack of openness, accountability and transparency in city government remains scandalous and unacceptable. 
    This BOE article and others like it only serve to confirm that what City Hall & the BOE mean by government transparency, is really a form of invisibility that obfuscates what takes place surrounding so many substantial expenditures of taxpayer funds.  

  • Citizen

    The city knew the type of system that they wanted, and it looks like they picked the lowest responsible bidder for the sytem they specified. Looks like things are looking up for the water billing and accountability.

  • Ktrueheart

    Somebody please give our Mayor’s spokesman a dictionary “undisputed” … he’s got to be kidding???  Does he even remember the innumerable times he’s had to defend the many disputed/questionable actions by this administration?  Maybe the BREW can reprint a few for him.

  • Able Baker

    It’s important to know about the campaign contributions, but an unresponsive bidder is an unresponsive bidder.  If I’m looking for a contractor to build a house and someone proposes building a garage instead, why would I select them?

  • Peter

    AMI metering requires a substantial infrastructure investment to make work – you need to deploy a wide-area wireless network to read these meters.  I’m wondering how much of that cost is included in this contract or if the city is even going to bother since they don’t care about reading water meters anyway.

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