School officials didn't want plumbing contractor

October 02, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Erik Nelson contributed to this article.

Lawrence A. Snoops sits on the state board that regulates Maryland plumbers. But Howard County school officials say they didn't want his firm to bid on the plumbing contract for the new River Hill High School in Columbia.

They say his company, Collins-Snoops & Associates Inc., had fallen behind schedule on three earlier jobs for the school system -- which did not bode well given the new high school's tight construction schedule.

But, school officials say, they had no choice but to award Mr. Snoops the plumbing job in January 1993: His firm was the low bidder, and they had no way to disqualify him.

Very quickly, though, school officials' fears came to pass.

Mr. Snoops' company got behind schedule at River Hill, potentially causing costly delays in the work of other subcontractors on the project. Some of the Snoops company's plumbing work had to be redone, and some of its work resulted in potentially dangerous violations of the county plumbing code, according to a school system consultant.

By last October, school officials finally succeeded in persuading the Cockeysville contractor to withdraw from the project. But that was after the school system was left with an estimated $1.15 million in unanticipated plumbing costs -- part of an overall cost overrun on the River Hill project that has grown to about $2 million.

The overrun came to light Sept. 19 when the County Council had to approve a fund transfer to the school system to cover the additional costs. Mr. Snoops and the school system now are negotiating over responsibility for the plumbing problems at River Hill, and they may be headed toward a legal battle.

Mr. Snoops -- the son of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's close friend Hilda Mae Snoops -- is a Schaefer appointee to the eight-member state Board of Plumbing that regulates the plumbing trade and examines and certifies plumbers. In the River Hill dispute, there is no indication he received the school contract because of political connections.

But the quality of his company's work on the project contrasts with Mr. Snoops' position on the state plumbing board. At the very least, it illustrates a possible flaw in the bidding process used widely by Maryland public agencies: A low bid isn't always the best bid.

"For a public agency to reject a low bid, it's going to have to come up with some very substantial reasons for doing that," such as failing to complete a project, said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Snoops attributed the plumbing cost overruns at River Hill to changes made after his company left the project. He said he wasn't aware of any plumbing code violations at the school.

He said a news article about his company's problems at River Hill would "only muddy the waters" of his negotiations with school officials. And he maintained those talks should result in more money for him from the school system, saying: "The amount of money we're looking for coming to us would end the whole thing and make it go away."

Over the years, poor performance by contractors hasn't been much of an issue for the Howard school system, which has had a solid record of building schools on time and under budget. River Hill -- which opened in August despite construction problems -- is the first county school in more than five years to incur cost overruns. Originally planned to open in 1997, River Hill's construction schedule was tightened so it could provide classroom space for students displaced this school year when Wilde Lake High School was torn down to make way for another new high school.

The accelerated construction schedule worried school officials when Mr. Snoops bid on the River Hill project because he had problems meeting deadlines on earlier projects at two county elementary schools and one county middle school.

"He never failed to perform in a major way, but he was not someone you wanted to hire if you had a big job you were going to move in a hurry," said William Brown, director of school construction and planning.

Mr. Snoops' $1.7 million bid for the plumbing contract was the lowest by more than $100,000. But he quickly ran into trouble on the project.

"As the work was in progress, we noticed for whatever reason, they were having trouble keeping up with the schedule -- endangering the possible completion of the project on time," Mr. Cousin said.

Much of the other construction work at River Hill could not begin until its plumbing was in place -- posing the possibility of cost escalations and delay claims by other subcontractors against the school system, which was serving as the project's general contractor.

Eight months into the project, school officials began getting warning letters from some of the project's 33 subcontractors, saying they might increase their charges because of plumbing delays.

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