Did you notice? The City of Minot Public Works Department and Committee are recommending the City hire Houston Engineering to complete engineering work required for Minot’s System Wide Improvement Framework (SWIF). The SWIF is the plan we’re going to execute to bring our existing flood control levees back into compliance with Corps of Engineers requirements. It’s a long time coming, and these improvements will give us a much better chance of surviving the next flood threat before completion of the long-term project.
In short, it’s great to see this project moving!
But the manner in which the work is being awarded to Houston Engineering raises some questions. First and foremost, how is it that a $352,000 contract just gets awarded? Shouldn’t this go through some type of bid process?
I asked the City this last week, and here’s the response I got from Public Works Director Dan Jonasson:
Engineering services are not competitively bid. Engineers are hired on qualifications base. Federal Brooks act does not allow cost to be used when selecting engineering services.
That makes sense. We should first qualify the hiring of professional services by a firm’s ability to complete the work competently.
But on further investigation, I also discovered that the Brooks Act establishes a qualifications-based selection process. In short, when a federal or civilian agency needs engineering services, we usually issue what’s a called a Request for Qualifications. It’s kind of like an invitation to bid on the work, but rather than judging firms based on price, we judge them based on credentials.
So, I asked the City where was the RFQ for this project? After all, our sales tax dollars are being used to pay for the SWIF, and $352,000 is a lot of money. In response, I was directed to the official minutes from the May 4th, 2015 City Council meeting in which Houston Engineering was awarded the contract to develop the City’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP). You can read the RFQ that details the scope of work required for that project here.
I’ve asked the City what we paid Houston Engineering for completion of the EAP and have yet to hear back. But I can’t imagine it’s anywhere near $352,000 we’re now awarding Houston for all aspects of the SWIF because the initial RFQ for the EAP doesn’t have the same technical requirements.
And in case you haven’t picked up on it yet, I don’t like the manner in which this contract is getting awarded. I think it raises a lot of questions. Here’s a few I’ve considered:
- The RFQ for the EAP is now more than a year old. At what point does an RFQ become dated and no longer applicable?
- What message are we sending to competing firms when we use this kind of foot-in-the-door policy for awarding future work? Doesn’t it create the impression that the procurement game is rigged?
- How do we know we’re getting the most qualified firm? I have no doubt Houston Engineering is qualified to do the needed work, but when we award future contracts based on past RFQs and the scope of work scales up in technical requirements, how can we be sure we’re still getting the most qualified firm?
- We’re paying for this part of the SWIF design with city sales tax dollars. If we were using federal dollars to complete the work, would the procurement process be held to a higher standard?
Here’s what I’m getting at, the bid and RFQ processes are in place to protect the integrity of the procurement process. When we dole out contracts based on past RFQs we’re compromising that integrity. There’s no doubt there are some efficiencies gained from conducting business this way, but when so many other aspects of the City’s operations are under scrutiny, should we be opening ourselves up to further criticism?