No-bid no good Howard County: Safeguard is needed to guard against cozy government-business ties.

September 27, 1996

WE OFFER two words of caution to Howard County officials who have awarded a handful of no-bid contracts for road projects: Daniel Henson.

The county's Department of Public Works has awarded eight contracts worth a combined $1.5 million since 1991 -- three this year -- without using a competitive bidding process. Six of those awards have gone to the Rouse Co. for work on its own projects. County officials justify the shortcut by saying it is quick and inexpensive, and has allowed the county to share costs of the work with Columbia-based Rouse and two other companies that received no-bid contracts.

But part of that argument was used by Mr. Henson, the Baltimore housing commissioner, in defending his housing authority's decision to award $25.6 million in no-bid work for emergency repairs to residential units a few years ago. Mr. Henson's explanation was that the no-bid process in the city's federally subsidized housing complexes was expeditious and thrifty. However, the quick and dirty method opened the trap for corruption by public employees and contractors, ending in a slew of federal court convictions.

This corruption came about because the safeguard of competitive bidding was not in place to ensure that the Baltimore Housing Authority would not become too close to businesses that win contracts. There is an inherent danger of favoritism when this competitive bidding is not in place.

The bidding process is far from perfect. It generally favors big, established contractors to the disadvantage of small, start-up firms, including black-owned companies, that have difficulty obtaining security bonds for government work. But competitive bids provide important safeguards that should not be ignored for the sake of speed. Moreover, the process enables government agencies to save money by selecting from a group of competitors a company that promises to perform a particular job at the lowest cost.

Fortunately, Howard's grant of no-bid contracts has been the exception rather than the rule. There are true emergencies where a no-bid solicitation makes sense. But the county would be well advised to rein in this practice and not make Baltimore's mistake.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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