Schaefer and Dixon block emissions testing contract

Comptroller, treasurer use board as forum to defy Glendening

January 06, 2000|By Michael Dresser and Marcia Myers | Michael Dresser and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Richard N. Dixon ambushed a Glendening administration plan to give the operator of the state's Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program a $122 million contract extension yesterday, charging that officials showed favoritism in passing over a lower bidder.

With Gov. Parris N. Glendening out of state, the two other members of the Board of Public Works made a big show of refusing to support the five-year contract award to Environmental Systems Products Inc. of East Granby, Conn., the firm that tests 1.2 million vehicles a year in Maryland.

Dismissing Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's defense of the proposed contract, Schaefer and Dixon forced the Motor Vehicle Administration to withdraw the award until it can provide an independent analysis justifying its decision.

"You already made up your mind that this was the firm," Schaefer lectured Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari and MVA Administrator Anne S. Ferro, dismissing their objections to an independent study as "a bunch of baloney."

The action came on a day when the two officials repeatedly flexed their muscles to delay or frustrate Glendening administration actions.

The meeting provided a vivid illustration of how the powerful board, a friendly forum for Glendening when the late Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein was a member, has changed since Schaefer was elected in 1998.

The most serious rebuff to the administration came on its proposal to award the contract to manage the emissions testing system known as VEIP, a cornerstone of the state's anti-pollution efforts and a program that affects every Marylander who drives.

The administration proposed to extend by five years the contract of Environmental Systems even though it was underbid by Parsons Infrastructure and Technology Group Inc., a Pasadena, Calif., company whose management of a similar program in New Jersey is off to a troubled start.

Environmental Systems' bid was $122 million for five years, or $208 million over 9 1/2 years if the state exercises two renewal options. Parsons' bid was $120 million over five years and $188 million over 9 1/2 years.

State transportation officials said Environmental Systems scored higher on its technical ranking, which accounted for 60 percent of the total score in the bidding process. They said technical evaluation was reviewed by an independent consulting firm that found in favor of Environmental Systems in 18 of 27 categories.

Schaefer and Dixon objected to the weight put on the technical score. "You can manipulate the technical," Schaefer complained. "I never liked that."

Dixon also dismissed the department consultant's opinion, saying he is "always a little leery of experts." He accused the MVA of "slanting" its decision toward the current contractor.

"We would suggest we were slanting it toward the customer," Ferro shot back. The MVA chief noted Environmental Systems' "hands-on experience" in running Maryland's emission testing system. The company last year acquired MARTA Technologies Inc., which had run the testing centers since 1995.

Townsend, sitting in for Glendening, defended the agency, noting what she called a large discrepancy in the technical scores. "They made a tough decision that how cars are treated is important," she said.

The VEIP program raised the ire of many Maryland motorists when more elaborate testing stations were opened five years ago that provided the option of tailpipe emissions or dynamometer [treadmill] tests. Car owners complained about long waits and damage to vehicles.

Ferro called the rollout a "disaster" and said it took a year and a half to get the program operating smoothly.

Dixon acknowledged that the program's performance has improved since then and is "running well" under Environmental Systems' management, but he dismissed Ferro's argument that the state system is particularly complex to operate.

If Dixon and Schaefer succeed in forcing the administration to award the contract to Parsons, it could be a controversial move.

Parsons, which began operating New Jersey's vehicle emissions program early last month, has been the target of motorists' anger over delays of as long as two hours for motorists at that state's testing sites.

New Jersey has imposed fines of more than $300,000 on Parsons because of delays, which have prompted lawmakers to call for sweeping exemptions to the testing requirements. Parsons' only such contract is in New Jersey.

Under the current contract, the state can impose fines against the company whenever a customer must wait more than 25 minutes for vehicle testing. The new contract would be tougher, requiring the work to be done within 15 minutes.

The stalled Maryland contract would replace one that was scheduled to expire in April but was extended to August in a separate board action yesterday. An MVA official yesterday said the new analysis would take about a week and predicted that the contract would be back before the board early next month.

The comptroller's attack on the VEIP contract was just one act in a vintage Schaefer performance yesterday as he continued to use board meetings as a forum to challenge Glendening over matters great and small.

In alliance with Dixon, Schaefer forced the Maryland Port Administration to pull back a $524,000 consulting contract to develop a master plan for land in and around the port of Baltimore. The comptroller complained that the 18-month time frame for the study was not aggressive enough.

Schaefer also forced the administration to pull back a pay raise for a Department of Budget and Management executive in a dispute over the denial of a salary increase to another state official.

The comptroller also used the meeting to restate his support for the Intercounty Connector and the Manchester bypass, two road projects Glendening has taken off the books. Schaefer also vowed to oppose any location for a new police training academy other than a Carroll County site scrapped by the governor.

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