Losing bidder says Fairfield purchasing process 'breeds corruption"™
A Fairfield man is challenging the fairness of the town's municipal bidding process, claiming that "it breeds corruption."
Jim Funk, a Fairfield resident with a business that sells construction equipment, made the allegation in an e-mail he wrote to First Selectman Kenneth Flatto detailing his concerns over recent bids the town solicited for a four-wheel-drive payloader. His business, F&W Equipment Corp. in Orange, was among the unsuccessful bidders for the equipment sought by the Department of Public Works.
F&W's base bid of $135,800 for the payloader was not the lowest. That bid was $126,900 submitted by Liftech Equipment Co. of Bloomfield. Both bids were rejected and the sale was awarded to a higher bidder, W.I. Clark Co. in Waterbury, which filed a base bid of $143,120. Also rejected was the highest bid of $163,000 submitted by Westchester Tractor, a Brewster, N.Y., business.
Clark, however, met all the bid specifications, according to town officials, and the two lowest bidders did not.
And that, Funk contends, is the problem. "Whenever we see a bid where the specifications are quoted from a specific manufacturer's brochure, we know who is going to win the bid," Funk told Flatto. In this case, Funk said, the bid specs used were for a payloader made by John Deere. "The DPW has already made up their mind and the bidding is merely a procedure that they are supposed to follow for the appearance of fairness to the taxpayers."
Funks contended that as a business owner he understands the practice, but as a taxpayer has a problem with the bid procedures because other businesses don't bother to bid "knowing that it is a waste of time," which often means the town does not get the best bargain. If the John Deere payloader were the best equipment for the price, Funk said, he would be satisfied. "I'd just like to know what those things are," he said, that make the Deere equipment the best choice.
Funk said he's found that when a municipality lists more generic bid specifications there are more responses, providing the town with more competition and potentially a better price. He said two other payloader manufacturers, Volvo and Caterpillar, were not even considered.
Public Works Director Richard White said all of the town's bids ask that the equipment be "and/or equal" to the specifications listed. "If is isn't equal, that's key," White said, adding officials write specs based on equipment in the town fleet, which they feel works best. And while Volvo and Caterpillar make excellent products, he said, their equipment is generally too expensive.
Flatto said an initial review of the bid process has uncovered no problems or wrongdoing, though he has asked the assistant town attorney to investigate.
"According to public works, the two low bidders did not meet the specifications of the bid," Flatto said. "It's kind of a shame that a disgruntled bidder would call the press rather than go through the proper process, which is to contact the purchasing director first."
Funk said he is pleased that Flatto is reviewing the issue, but wants to know what the ultimate outcome is. "If he finds something that isn't correct, how do we know if it gets changed?" he said.
Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Kennelly said her review did not show any impropriety or suggestion of bid rigging. "The bid wasn't written so narrowly that only one person was going to get the deal," she said. The highest bid from Westchester Tractor for a Kawaski payloader also did meet the specs, Kennelly said.
Purchasing Director Twig Holland said it is not unusual for a municipality to use a manufacturer's specifications when seeking bids on a piece of large equipment. For example, she said, many towns and cities seek bids specifically for Ford Crown Victorias when they want to buy new police cruisers. "It's quite frequently done in public bidding," she said.
Holland said her department "turns ourselves inside out to make sure things are done fairly. We want to make sure everyone who wants the work has an equal opportunity."
She said when bid specs are written, purchasing officials review what work needs to be done and what is the best equipment or method to do that job.
In the case of the payloader, the bid from Clark was the lowest that included the braking systems required in the bid. Both Liftech and Clark brought their loaders to the town garage for a comparison and test drives, White said. Another issue was the vehicle's feature to switch from four-wheel to two-wheel drive capability. "A contractor working on the Merritt Parkway is there for a year and leaves their equipment," White said. "Here, we're in Greenfield Hill one day and another day we'll be on the beach. We drive the equipment to the site."
The bid submitted by Funk's company included over two pages of exceptions to the bid specs -- areas where the payloader did not meet the specification sought by the town.
"The town will pay much more for a comparable machine," Funk said. "In total the town will spend more than $23,000 to own a John Deere with attachments. Two brake pedals, fuel tank and other small issues do not add up to $23K."
That, he contended, "breeds corruption."
Funk added that it's "more than likely" the winning company knew the bid spec would be quoted from the Deere brochure "and there would be no need to run with a small profit margin."