Two prominent contractors today ganged up on a third equally influential contractor, protesting the award of a $5.8 million “urgent need” water meter repairs contract.
Usually, such protests are dismissed in a matter of minutes by the Board of Estimates.
But today the panel, led by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, listened attentively for a full 40 minutes as the losing bidders staked out grievances that harkened back to an older and much bigger contract.
At issue was whether Spiniello Companies had gotten the inside track on today’s contract as a subcontractor for Itron, the West Coast firm that is installing thousands of wireless “BaltiMeters” across the city and parts of Baltimore County.
The losing bidders, R.E. Harrington Plumbing and Metra Industries, charged that Spiniello was able to underbid them only because it was privy to information they didn’t have.
Harrington’s lawyer, Edward Smith Jr., was emphatic that the process was tainted and amounted to discrimination against a homegrown minority firm, namely his client.
Fighting for the Home Team
“There have been many tricks that have gone on before this board that come from out-of-town companies,” Smith charged. “We have an opportunity to stop this historical bleeding of our community.”
(Spiniello is headquartered in Livingston N.J., while Metra hails from Little Falls, N.J.)
Art Shapiro, chief of engineering and construction at the Department of Public Works, pointed out that all three companies have worked so long for the city that they could all be construed as having conflicts of interest.
“All three have been working either on these particular on-call contracts or other on-call contracts repairing meters and putting in vaults,” Shapiro said.
Remember the Dynis Bid?
However, in the small world of Baltimore water and sewer contracting, the competing companies are allied with different factions. This is what made for the unspoken tension at the hearing.
Harrington was a key component of the Dynis LLC bid, along with financier J.P. Grant, Parking Authority chairman Peter Auchincloss, and other area businessmen.
The group’s loss of the 2013 meter contract to Itron and Spiniello – The Brew wrote extensively about Dynis’ attempt to wring $100 million more out of the city for the work – still raises hackles among the Dynis crowd.
Actually, a city official points out, all three companies have worked so long for DPW that they could all be construed as having conflicts of interest.
Robert Harrington, R.E. Harrington’s president, today alluded to Itron and its alleged cozy relationship with Spiniello.
“Under Itron, Spiniello has a list given to him, a route sheet, that has 2,000-plus meters every week. So he knows exactly where he’s going,” he told the board in a forceful voice.
“If I had this list prior to bidding like Spiniello did, then, yeah, I could have lowered my bid a little bit,” Harrington said. (The Harrington bid was $1.2 million higher than Spiniello’s.)
All the Bids Seem too Low
After hearing from Harrington, board member Young took a different tack, saying he was dissatisfied because all three bids were much lower than the city engineer’s estimate.
“We know that when they [contractors] bid low, they come back to the board with extra work orders to make up for the rest of money,” Young said.
“I have historically voted for the low bidder,” Young continued. “But I have also questioned the cost overruns on these projects.”
Trying to get in a word edgewise, Metra’s lawyer, Neil Duke, finally called on the board to reject all of the bids and start the process over.
The prospect of delaying the BaltiMeter program that’s already behind schedule did not excite the spending board.
Nor did Smith’s insistence that two of its members, DPW Director Rudy Chow and City Solicitor George Nilson, recuse themselves from discussing the contract with other board members.
Let’s Confer in Private
Mayor Rawlings-Blake stepped in to announce an apparent compromise.
“It seems to me that we have a number of issues that have been presented here today we need to review,” she said, following the 40 minutes of bickering and accusations from various parties.
But the mayor wanted the Harrington contingent to back off.
“Why don’t you just withdraw it [the motion] and ask that you have the ability to raise it in the future,” she asked Smith. “This is really getting complicated and unnecessarily so.”
“Madam Mayor, I take your suggestion and do adopt it,” Smith replied, whereupon the board voted to revisit the issue next week after it conferred in private.