Road project bid waivers on increase County says forgoing open estimate process saves time and money

'Wave of the future'

Critics say practice illustrates 'coziness' of Ecker, businesses

September 15, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

When the Rouse Co. wanted to spruce up Little Patuxent Parkway -- Main Street for its planned city of Columbia -- it pitched the project, built the prototype, selected a contractor and oversaw the work.

The main thing Howard County did was pick up the $580,000 tab.

The key to the arrangement was the county's willingness to waive its competitive bidding process and turn the project over to Rouse, whose Columbia Mall and corporate headquarters are both on Little Patuxent Parkway near the road project.

This deal was not unique. For the past several years, under the leadership of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, the county has waived bidding on a small, but growing number of road projects.

Critics say the practice highlights a coziness that has long existed between Howard County's politicians and its business leaders, particularly when it comes to the powerful Rouse Co. and other development companies in the fast-growing county.

"The whole reason for bidding in government is obviously to prevent favoritism in awarding contracts," said Ecker's predecessor, Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat whose administration seldom waived bidding procedures. "I think it's important that we keep that safeguard."

Since Ecker, a Republican, was elected six years ago on a pro-growth, pro-business platform, the county has waived bidding procedures to award eight road contracts totaling $1.5 million directly to major developers -- with most going to the Rouse Co. The county used regular bidding procedures for more than $45 million worth of road work in that period.

This month, two more contracts, totaling $165,000 in county money, are before the Howard County Council, which must hold public hearings before approving the administration's plan to waive competitive bidding.

"It's the wave of the future," said county Public Works Director Jim Irvin. "There's going to be a lot more of it."

Local citizens groups, contractors and Common Cause Maryland warn that routinely awarding no-bid contracts can lead to favoritism and bloated bills to taxpayers.

"Open, competitive bidding and the low-bid system has served state and local government well for many years," said Robert Latham, executive director of the Maryland Highway Contractors Association. "Fooling around with that can lead to some problems."

But county officials say that the decision to waive bidding grows not from coziness with business leaders but from the relentless push in the 1990s for government to do more work with less money.

Hiring a developer directly, essentially as a project manager, leads to work that is done more quickly and efficiently and less expensively than the county's public bidding process allows, say county officials.

"There's no coziness with Rouse or any other developer," Ecker said, adding that the reason for the no-bid contracts is simple: "We think it saves money."

On Little Patuxent Parkway, the elaborate brickwork, plantings and repaving done this summer had their genesis in a 1987 Columbia Town Center master plan, developed by Rouse and the Columbia Association, the planned community's homeowner organization.

In a full-color brochure produced at the time, Rouse boasted of amenities to come, including the improvements to Little Patuxent Parkway: "A tree-lined, brick-edged boulevard enhances Columbia's downtown image and creates a symbolic Main Street."

Soon after, the county, Rouse and the homeowners association agreed to build many of the projects envisioned in the plan, with each of the partners responsible for a share of the work.

Rouse and the homeowners association quickly did their part, but as the early 1990s arrived, Howard County, like much of the rest of Maryland, fell into recession.

The Little Patuxent Parkway work was put on hold.

By the time the county funded the $580,000 project, the pressure for fast, high-quality work had grown, county officials say. So they turned to Rouse.

Not only was Rouse a longtime partner in the project, but it had built and paid for very similar road work -- the prototype for the county's work -- on another stretch of Little Patuxent Parkway as part of the original partnership.

Alton J. Scavo, a Rouse senior vice president who manages Columbia, says the project offered far more hassles than profit, but the company agreed to take the job as "a favor" to the county and to simply get a long-stalled project done.

"The fee was insignificant given the task and given where [Rouse staff] should have been developing land," Scavo said. "The up side here was to finally get this thing in place."

The County Council approved the deal, and the administration is happy with the cost and quality of the work, which is to be completed in November.

But critics say the county risks higher costs and unfairness to contractors when projects aren't put up for bid.

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