Bidding For Trouble In Columbia

Howard County: Association's Governing Board Must Tighten Rules For Doing Business.

April 29, 1997

THE SEMI-PUBLIC association that builds and runs recreational facilities in Columbia must make immediate changes to restore confidence that it is properly spending millions of dollars it collects yearly from homeowners in one of the nation's largest planned communities. A story in The Sun on Sunday revealed sloppiness in the Columbia Association's bidding process that makes it ripe for favoritism and waste.

Most disturbing in reporter Dan Morse's article were revelations that officials falsified records to make it appear that contractors bid on projects when they had not. Sixteen contractors who told the reporter that they did not bid on the projects were listed as high bidders. Such a system easily could become a charade for granting contracts to favored vendors under the guise of a competitive procedure.

CA also accepted late bids, creating the appearance that a contractor might know the prices submitted by competitors; altered bids to favor one firm over another, and awarded no-bid contracts without seeking other qualified businesses. The report also showed that the CA did a poor job of documenting bids, especially those submitted by telephone.

Local governments are bound by strict legal guidelines to use competitive bidding to secure the best prices for merchandise or work. But Columbia is not run by a local government. Its massive recreational program is overseen by a huge, independent homeowners' association -- the second-largest in the country.

It is not compelled to operate under governmental rules. However, its size and visibility make it more than your average homeowners' association in a subdivision that might collect just a few thousand dollars to plow snow or mow common areas.

The CA serves 85,000 people, the equivalent of Maryland's second-largest city. Its $49 million program for recreation for the coming fiscal year is double that of Howard County's recreation and parks budget. The association's $90 million debt is also a potential future burden on every homeowner in the town James W. Rouse built 30 years ago.

It is imperative that the Columbia Council move quickly to adopt the kind of rules that governments follow, to gain not just the best price, but the public's trust.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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