Landscape contract hits a rough patch

March 30, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

Nothing says spring like freshly mowed grass.

And nothing says bureaucratic bungling like a landscaping contract scuttled days before grass-cutting season begins.

A nearly $700,000 contract set for city approval yesterday had been forged to save money by combining landscaping at public parks and city schools. The newly configured deal was also crafted to let more minority firms compete for the work.

But yesterday, the Board of Estimates delayed a decision until next week after the losing landscaper presented evidence of a possibly flawed bidding process.

City Council President Sheila Dixon said the matter should be deferred one week, even though the lawn-cutting season is almost here.

Mayor Martin O'Malley asked the obvious question: "If we defer it, who cuts the grass?"

Until the board formally awards the contract, parks employees, teen volunteers and convicted criminals will, parks director Connie Brown said after the board meeting. He insisted that mowing will begin on time but did say they are getting a small reprieve: "With respect to this problem, the exceptionally dry season has slowed grass growth to date."

The board was ready yesterday to award $697,968 to two companies -- $541,104 to TruGreen Landcare, a national company with local offices, and $156,864 to Lorenz Inc. in Baltimore, according to city documents. Each firm pledged to share between 16 percent to 20 percent of their work with minority subcontractors.

The protesting landscaper, Andrew West of Guardian Landscaping in Baltimore, provided documents showing that TruGreen appeared to have been given insider information that he said allowed it to offer a lower price. He presented the board with an e-mail from a purchasing official contained in TruGreen's bid documents that indicated -- apparently wrongly -- the contract did not require bush and hedge trimming.

West said he did not get the e-mail. A TruGreen spokesman said all bidders received the notice, and a city official said the e-mail did not amount to an official change to the contract's specifications.

West also showed that Lorenz has failed to meet minority subcontracting goals in past contracts.

Because of a shortage of minority landscaping firms certified by the city, prime contractors must pay a costly premium for the seasonal services of the few minority firms available, city and company officials said.

West, who has done landscaping for the city and schools since 1996, said his prices were 3.2 percent higher because he factored in more realistic costs of using minority firms based on meeting his goals on former contracts.

The revelation that Lorenz was recommended despite missing its past minority goals upset board members. It came moments after the board rejected an unrelated company's request to continue its janitorial services because it had failed to meet its minority goals in its lapsed contract.

"It sounds like you apply the rules differently," Dixon told minority-business development officials.

Thomas B. Corey, chief of the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office, said Lorenz was deemed to be in compliance for the recommended contract despite past violations because it had always provided valid reasons.

Corey said Lorenz's former minority partner had gotten sick and a substitute would have cost too much.

"That's the cost of doing business as a prime contractor," said Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, a board member.

West said whenever his minority subcontractors canceled, he too has had to find new partners -- always at exorbitant prices.

For at least a decade, the Baltimore public schools and city government have separately awarded lawn-cutting contracts. But the city combined schools and parks into 11 landscaping clusters, a move that should save a total of more than $400,000, officials said.

The arrangement, which O'Malley officials had bragged about the day before, appeared to confound board members.

"I'm not sure what the solution is, either," the mayor said. He then moved to defer the matter one week and requested that city lawyers find out how an e-mail "was added to the bid that supposedly wasn't part of the bid."

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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