Ball dropped on playground gear

August 28, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Nila Martin's summer project has gone bust.

When schools closed in June, the Abingdon mother made it her goal to find out why there was no playground equipment at Abingdon Elementary School after two years.

She's still wondering. On the eve of Harford County schools' opening on Sept. 7, there's nary a slide or a platform to climb on at the Singer Road school.

The money has been budgeted and the bids submitted, but the playground contract is in appeals limbo.

"The ball's been dropped," said Mrs. Martin, whose 9-year-old son will be in fourth grade at the school, which opened in 1992. "They're still dragging their feet."

At issue is whether the low bidder for the project should get the estimated $250,000 contract to provide playground equipment for Abingdon Elementary, eight other schools and eight county parks.

The process began simply enough. The county Board of Education and Department of Recreation and Parks combined bids for the 17 sites.

Money for the project was also a combined effort. It includes $23,500 from PTAs, $60,000 from the parks department and $50,000 from the Board of Education for the schools' nine sites.

"It's the first time we've done it this way," said Donald R. Morrison, county schools spokesman.

"It became a mammoth project," said Robert Lee, management assistant for the parks department.

Specifications were drafted site by site, with parks officials drawing up those for their eight sites, and the Board of Education piggybacking on the contract.

"We made suggestions to Parks and Rec, and they put it together," Mr. Morrison said.

The list included such requirements as the grade of steel, height of posts, type of fasteners and angle of slides to be provided by the bidders.

"They [Board of Education] agreed that what we had in our specs looked good to them," Mr. Lee said. "It saved a lot of time."

Not quite.

The first bid, in April, was canceled and rewritten, said John O'Neill, director of the county procurement office. His office fine-tuned the specifications, advertised the project and opened the bids.

Low bidder rejected

The low bidder for the playground contract was Taylor Associates, a 26-year-old West Virginia company that has two Maryland offices. It bid $222,352.

"We didn't feel specs on the bid specifications were followed," Mr. O'Neill said, explaining why the contract wasn't awarded to Taylor. He said Recreation and Parks and the Board of Education made that determination.

"We felt the low bidder did not meet what we wanted," Mr. Lee said.

"The thinking was that the equipment did not meet the specs," Mr. Morrison said. "The problem centers on safety issues" such as tamper-free bolts and stringent warranties.

The second-lowest bidder among the six was West Recreation Inc., an Ellicott City company founded in 1985, with $262,370. It was awarded the contract.

Taylor appealed to Larry W. Klimovitz, the county director of administration. That resulted in another bid procedure in July.

"There were 'shoulds' and 'would be desireds' instead of mandatories," Mr. O'Neill said of the original five-page list of specifications.

In the second round, Taylor was low bidder at $236,980, but the parks department and the Board of Education again awarded the contract to West, the only other bidder, for $261,278.

"The low bid does not always bid what we ask for," Mr. O'Neill said.

Again, Taylor is appealing the decision. A hearing is scheduled Sept. 22 before the county director of administration.

"It is unusual. It is the process, though," Mr. O'Neill said.

"My client is hopeful in getting the contract," said Bruce Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist and Taylor Associates' attorney. "They are seeking to do business with the county."

Meanwhile, the 17 sites are bare or have deteriorating playground equipment.

"There are people who are suffering through the whole thing," Mr. Lee said. "But we're trying to put equipment out there we feel comfortable with."

Parents frustrated

Said Mrs. Martin: "I want the best for my kids, but I want something, too. There are a lot of frustrated people out there."

Without the playground equipment, "we'll continue to do what we've done with phys.-ed.-type equipment, like . . . balls, kickballs," said J. Lawrence Mills, Abingdon Elementary's principal. "There are many different ways [for children] to burn up some energy."

Other schools due playground equipment in the contract are Deerfield and Edgewood elementaries in Edgewood; Forest Hill Elementary, and Fountain Green Elementary in Bel Air; Hall's Cross Roads Elementary in Aberdeen; Meadowvale Elementary in Havre de Grace; Norrisville Elementary in White Hall; and North Harford Elementary in Pylesville.

The park sites are Edgewater Village Park in Edgewood, Flying Point Park in Edgewood, Francis Silver Park in Darlington, Fox Meadows Park in Jarrettsville, Heavenly Waters Park in Bel Air, Mariner Point Park in Joppatowne, Robert Copenhaver Park in Joppatowne and William Longley Park in Abingdon.

"It's unfortunate we had to throw out the first set [of bids]," Mr. O'Neill said. "The equipment would probably be in by now."

When the contract is awarded, it will still take about three months to install the equipment, Mr. O'Neill said. He estimated that it won't be in place until Christmas.

Mrs. Martin isn't optimistic. "The ground will be frozen," she predicted. "They won't be putting the equipment in till springtime."

And that time frame doesn't take into account that if Taylor doesn't win the September hearing, it can appeal the county administrator's decision in Harford Circuit Court.

"I just want it to go away and just have something for people to enjoy," Mr. Lee said.

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