Bid procedures are tightened in Columbia after some sloppiness More care is taken after Sun investigation found laxness in bids

Some were falsified

November 22, 1997|By Dan Morse and Dana Hedgpeth | Dan Morse and Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Nearly seven months after disclosures of questionable spending practices, the huge homeowners association that manages Columbia has tightened bidding procedures, improving how it buys everything from computers to concrete.

The Columbia Association strives to reach more bidders to get the best price, keeps more complete records and has curtailed practices that raised questions about whether Columbia's 85,000 residents get their money's worth, according to a review of the last six months of the association's purchasing documents.

The changes come as the association awaits the results of the first-ever audit in its 30-year history -- an audit ordered after articles in The Sun detailed the association's spending problems.

"Because of the scrutiny, a lot more care is being taken to not be sloppy," said Rob Goldman, who oversees association's recreation facilities. "There was some sloppiness, but that's being cleaned up."

He said of past practices, "If anything, the rules might have been bent to get the best price for CA."

Despite a current budget of $49 million and about 190 employees, the Columbia Association at times has spent money like a mom-and-pop operation.

Last spring's articles showed dozens of cases in which the association altered bids after they were received; apparently falsified phone bids; accepted late bids; allowed vendors to increase their contracts without written authorization, and awarded contracts without contacting other available bidders.

Those practices violated accepted standards for government and business and, in some cases, the asociation's own purchasing policies. Purchasing experts said the association's methods and sloppy recordkeeping could create the appearance of favoritism and pose ethical problems.

The association officials attacked the articles as misleading. But CA President Padraic M. Kennedy later evaluated the association's purchasing, discovered additional recordkeeping problems and reprimanded an undisclosed number of employees for "a pattern of carelessness in adhering to CA's purchasing policies and procedures."

All of this didn't sit well with many of Columbia's residents, for whom the association is something of a town government. The typical homeowner pays $740 annually to the association in what amounts to a local property tax. CA runs recreation and service programs ranging from health clubs to day-care centers.

Kennedy said his staff has always known how to get the best deal for CA; they're just documenting it better these days.

"There are always excellent reasons for a purchase, they are just writing it clearer now so that if an unschooled person were to come in it would be clearer to that person," Kennedy said Thursday.

He said the association's staff members have always sought to reach a variety of vendors to get the best prices.

Pam Mack, a CA spokeswoman, said staff members have welcomed a chance to speak with the auditors because they feel they've received unfair criticism.

"It seems to me our position hasn't really changed from day one. Which is no CA staff personally benefited in any purchases, that there was no favoritism," Mack said.

"You're primarily talking about hastily done paperwork," Mack added. "And you will find that anywhere."

Goldman said the Columbia Association actually spends too much time evaluating proposals for projects less than $5,000. He predicted this will be confirmed by the audit, expected to be released in the next few weeks.

Also awaiting the audit are the 10 Columbia residents who commissioned it -- CA's volunteer board of directors. Historically, this group has offered little oversight of CA spending.

Now, though, after spending $50,000 on the audit, some board members are vowing to increase their scrutiny.

"The audit is part of us taking a more hands-on role of what happens," said Wanda Hurt, a member of the board, also known as the Columbia Council. "This council is more into the nuts and bolts of the organization than [previous] councils. We're snoopier."

Added Jean Friedberg, a council member who himself is a purchasing consultant: "Part of what we hope to do is learn our lessons and move on."

Officials at Raffa & Associates P.C., the firm conducting the audit, declined to discuss it, as did Alex Hekimian, chairman of the board's purchasing task force.

At least three senior vice presidents of CA predicted the audit would be a form of vindication. "The auditors will find no improprieties, no malice, nothing illegal," Goldman said.

CA hasn't changed its basic policies on when staff must obtain bids.

For purchases under $1,500, CA employees are not required to obtain competitive bids. They can simply buy from a single vendor or contractor -- an accepted practice for many businesses and governments.

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