IRON RIVER—The West Iron County School Board’s policy of giving local bidders an advantage on major projects was criticized by a representative of a Marquette County company during the board’s March 17 regular meeting.
The topic came up as the board reviewed bids for the student dropoff area at Stambaugh Elementary School. An enlarged dropoff area will be created along with a sidewalk that will separate that area from the bus pickup-dropoff area between the elementary school and the high school. Also, an old storage building will be removed.
Superintendent Chris Thomson told the board that four bids had been received before the deadline and opened two weeks ago. IDI, an engineering-design firm the district works with, said all four met bid specs. It recommended Smith Contracting of Marquette, the low bidder.
However, Thomson recommended that Hebert Construction’s bid be approved. “We have a 10 percent variance for local bidders,” he said. “We have used it since I have been in administration, in ’08.” If the local bidder is within 10 percent of the low bidder, he said, it can win the bid.
Hebert’s total bid was $188,960, seven percent higher than the Smith bid of $176,500.
Board Member Faye Atanasoff asked where the difference between Smith and Hebert came from. “I know it’s 10 percent,” she said, “but it’s still 12 grand.” Thomson said there was a $4,000 difference in the building demolition and about $6,500 to almost $7,000 for dirt work. Also, Thomson noted, Smith would give the district a $1,500 discount if it got both bids.
Thomson made no apologies for giving the local firm an advantage, noting that they and their employees have kids attending West Iron. “In a struggling economy like we have, as much as I appreciate the bids,” he continued, “it’s something that I am always aware of—and will always be aware of.”
A representative from Smith arrived during the discussion and said Northeast Asphalt would do the paving for the project “whether we do it or Hebert.” If that $55,000 of the cost is taken out of the base bid, he said, “it would be well under 10 percent.”
He also said that nothing in the bid documents mentioned the 10 percent allowance and talked about the three trips he had made to Iron River from Marquette, along with work done in preparing the bid. “That’s a lot of money out the door if that’s not mentioned—you know what I mean?”
Much of the discussion centered on the 10 percent policy, which, said Board President Roy Polich, “is a lot easier to deal with if you’re talking about the price of pizza, because the amount of money is not so great.” Still, he added, the amount of money put into the sinking fund by employers, employees, owners and families “is a fairly large number.”
Since the project’s cost come from West Iron’s sinking fund, it’s all local money—unlike state aid payments.
The Smith official said the policy means the school district could end up paying a lot more money in the long run for favoring local bidders. “There’s only one local contractor that can get bonded,” he said. “I know if I go back, my boss is going to say, ‘No more bidding Iron River—it’s a waste of time for us to even look at it.’
“I guarantee, if it [the 10 percent allowance] was put in the bid spec, we wouldn’t even put a bid in. You’d have one bid for this job.”
Finance Committee Chairman Rob Possanza said he was instrumental in the 10 percent allowance for local bids. “The local guys are having a hard time with the large distributors across the state,” he explained. He said his own business pays a lot in property taxes to the school district—and so does Hebert.
“I see both sides of the story,” Possanza said. “Me, personally, if it’s within the 10 percent, I believe it should go to the local firm--because we’re going to be asking for taxes from now until eternity. The only way the world’s going to survive is with taxes.”
Board Member Erik Malmquist said the same question had come up three or four times before, though the amount in question at that time only equaled “$100 to $300.” In future major projects, he said, the 10 percent rule may not be used. But that had not been discussed with this project. “That’s always been our policy of trying to keep it local.”
Polich said the policy committee can consider changing the percentage for larger projects. Possanza said maybe it could be eliminated entirely for capital projects over $100,000.
The motion to accept Hebert’s bid was approved 6-0. Moments later, the Smith official muttered something and hurriedly left.
Thomson said IDI “had kind of known this response was going to occur,” and the board asked him to contact the owner of Smith Contracting.
“When you do,” said Possanza, “tell him the conduct of his employee was unprofessional and unwarranted and not appreciated.”
• Board members also approved wiring for an upcoming security camera update.
Brian Rippey, the district’s technology consultant, said the work can be done over spring break. “The big thing is get the system into one, so it can be viewed district-wide.”
Decisions about how many cameras, what kinds, where they will be placed and how they will be paid for have not yet been made. The wiring will provide a connection at every place where a camera is being considered.
The single bid for wiring from Van Ert for $11,995 was approved, as was the lower of two bids for switches, $6,630 from Teck Solutions. The cost of wiring can come from the district’s sinking fund; the switches are not sinking fund-eligible.