Baltimore Co. to tighten its no-bid pacts Firms awarded work asked for proof only they can do job

'It's probably a good idea'

Move is undertaken amid larger overhaul of bidding practices

November 15, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

Aiming to tighten its bid practices and ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent, Baltimore County is asking companies awarded no-bid contracts to file written proof confirming they are the only businesses capable of the work.

Over the past month, letters have poured into the county government from company executives in the Baltimore area and beyond. In at least one case, a manufacturer alerted the county to potential competition for work previously awarded without bid.

The new financial safeguard began during a Sun review of nearly $17.7 million in no-bid contracts awarded under County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. It comes amid a larger overhaul of county bid practices.

"This is going to be part of standard operating procedure, this gaining independent verification from the vendor," Fred Homan, the county's director of budget and finance, said yesterday. "It's making sure your i's are dotted and your t's are crossed."

In Baltimore County, a $1.3 billion-a-year operation where two former county executives were ensnared in contracting scandals, making sure public contracts are properly awarded is an important issue.

County policy requires that any contract of $15,000 or more -- other than for some highly specialized consulting work -- be awarded only after formal bid. But bids can be waived, according to county policy, "if the interests of the county are served by such action."

A Sun review found that some of the 260 no-bid contracts awarded under Ruppersberger stretched the "emergency" or "sole source" justifications used to waive formal bidding.

And Homan acknowledged that incomplete paperwork had been filed in some cases -- including a 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited bought for Ruppersberger from an Owings Mills campaign contributor. Ruppersberger said he had no role in buying the $26,500 Jeep from Allstate Leasing Inc.

Officials stressed that in most of the no-bid contracts, their hands were tied.

Contracts involving highly technical computer work, the pass-through of federal job training grants, emergency snow removal and other items accounted for more than $13.1 million of the $17.7 million in no-bid work, said Homan and Ruppersberger spokesman Michael H. Davis.

Still, Homan said, a few contracts previously awarded without bid now will be put out for bid -- a theme he reiterated yesterday.

"If we have any doubt whatsoever as to whether or not we can be better off or there might be competition if we put something on the street, we're going to put it on the street," he said.

And when the county considers waiving a bid, Homan is directing staff members to more fully document why it isn't needed. When such verification doesn't exist, Homan said, "It may very well be a road sign we take this out to bid. It's trying to firm up what I think are pretty solid procedures."

Last month, the county began going back to companies awarded no-bid contracts to get that verification. In turn, those companies have been filing letters that are going in county files.

Homan said the letters largely confirm the county's belief that the companies hired were the sole providers of a product.

One example: Folcomer Equipment Corp. of Aberdeen, awarded $30,000 no-bid contract to supply parts and labor for a particular make of tractors and loaders. On Oct. 18, David Folcomer, company owner and president, wrote to the county that his firm "is the sole distributor for Case parts and service in Baltimore County."

"They were asking me if in fact I was the only source of Case parts, and I said I was," Folcomer said yesterday. "Maybe your investigation into this made them become a little more aware they needed to have documentation on how this was sourced."

NTC Folcomer said he wasn't bothered by the call from the county: "I think it's probably a good idea."

Likewise, Milton James Co. of Baltimore -- awarded a $23,480 no-bid contract to provide parts and labor for large John Deere tractors -- informed the county on Oct. 18 it is "the authorized John Deere Industrial Equipment distributor" for the county.

Similar letters came in from Alban Tractor Co. Inc. of Baltimore; Vermeer Sales & Service of Annapolis; and Johnson & Towers Inc. of Baltimore. All three are authorized dealers to provide parts for county equipment.

But at least one manufacturer alerted the county to potential competition.

The county has awarded no-bid contracts for routine inspections and routine or emergency maintenance on a fleet of Bell Helicopters used by police. The contracts went to Helicopter Transport Service Inc. of Essex.

On Oct. 18, Bell Helicopter Textron -- the helicopter manufacturer -- told the county of another firm authorized to repair the fleet.

"The next closest, and one of the best for responsive 'can do' attitude, is Summit Aviation near Wilmington," a Textron official wrote, describing Summit's officials as "top notch."

Helicopter Transport Executive Vice President Michael Aslaksen said it makes sense for the county to reach out for potential competitors.

"That's fine," Aslaksen said. "They can contact and go out and select their sources just like I select my sources when I buy my parts. In this case, we're really the only service center for any aircraft in the state."

He added: "There's nothing to hide. Everything's above board."

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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