Board discusses protests over single/multiple bidder issue, projected cost overruns at middle school

SOUTH COVENTRY - Just about every detail concerning the renovation of Owen J. Roberts Middle School was disputed Monday night. But after several hours of discussion, the school board unanimously approved a $43,083,000 construction contract.

The board heard protests from an electrical contractor and his Harrisburg attorney, who both argued that this contract should have been bid to individual tradesmen instead of one large general contractor. Penn Builders, a Quakertown firm, offered the cheapest proposal among two other general contracting firms and was awarded the contract.

An attorney representing Philips Brothers Electrical Contractors Inc., said the contract should be put out to open bidding again due to significant cost overruns. The school district estimated this project would cost $37.4 million.

The attorney noted other school districts in the region that achieved cost savings by bidding their construction projects as "multiple prime," instead of "single prime." Owen J. Roberts decided to go with a general contractor - or single prime - as a result of poor experiences in the past dealing with multiple tradesmen, said board member Bill LaCoff.

Previously, district Business Manager Jaclin Krumrine said the cost overrun is a result of the escalating cost of building materials. On Monday, board member Debbie Bissland said re-bidding this contract again would set the district back.

"We're already late on this," Bissland said.

The middle school is undergoing a major renovation, which requires the building to be shut down through January 2010. It will serve as a 7/8 facility when it reopens, with sixth-graders moving to elementary schools.

Tim Brown, who identified himself

as an electrician from Pottstown, spoke at length before the board. Given the state of the economy and competition between contractors, bids should not come in above district estimates, Brown said.

"He's (general contractor) going to bring people in who owe him favors," he stated.

Brown also charged that general contractors such as Turner Construction add "markups" to change orders. This allegation was disputed by a contractor seated in the audience.

Brown, who repeatedly called for the board to "adjourn for a few minutes," admitted to intentionally inflating municipal bids when he was pressed by LaCoff. The Pottstown contractor called the common practice "bid shopping."

LaCoff asked if a company would return excess funds if they were awarded an "inflated" contract. Brown said he didn't understand the question.

Glen Philips asked the board why they simply didn't bid the middle school renovation to both general contractors and multiple tradesmen.

LaCoff responded, "We're afraid of the rotten job and rotten experience we've had doing it (the multiple prime) way."

He further stated that individual contractors tend to point the finger at other people, whereas a general contractor provides sole accountability.

After a few more heated exchanges Board President John Dutton called the meeting to order. He said he would have gone with multiple contractors, had he known what a "stink" single primes would cause. The board had been looking at a potential savings of $1.5 million - a figure Philips' attorney asked to see in writing. Printing documents for both bid types would have cost $70,000, according to the board.

"We're on a time schedule and we have to do what we have to do," said Dutton, a self-proclaimed union engineer.

All eight board members voted in favor of awarding the contract to Penn Builders. They also approved eight individual alternates - totaling an additional $310,350 - for a science lab, main courtyard improvements, pool UV system, new pool bleacher seats and other items.

The $43,083,000 contract includes $1.6 million in "allowances" for soil, plumbing and other areas, as well as a base bid of $41,436,975.

There was some dispute before votes were taken between the business manager and board members on the total contract price, a point of contention earlier in the meeting with Philips Electrical.

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