Baltimore's Board of Estimates awarded a $4 million contract for the Uplands redevelopment yesterday to a firm that did not meet city women- and minority-owned business guidelines, passing over two firms that followed the city's policies and causing some elected leaders to ask whether the decision compromises the honesty of Baltimore's bidding process.
"It changes the rules," said City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt. "It appears that we don't want to give it to the person who followed all the rules. I think it speaks to the lack of integrity in the city."
City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake concurred, saying she worried that yesterday's vote set a precedent that others would use to circumvent guidelines aimed at benefiting women- and minority-owned businesses.
The board voted yesterday to give demolition work on the Southwest Baltimore project to the low bidder, P&J Contracting Co. But the problem is that one of the subcontractors P&J proposes using for hauling debris, MR Hopkins Transportation Co., is not certified by the city's minority- and women-owned business program to do that kind of work.
Yesterday's award is contingent on the subcontractor coming into compliance with city rules in the next 10 days. Robert Dashiell, an attorney for P&J, cast the controversy as a minor flap over paperwork, saying that the subcontractor merely needs to update its certification with the city. He said he's optimistic that will happen and demolition will begin within two weeks.
Six other companies bid to do work on all or portions of the project. The city found that only two complied with city bid specifications. One of them, K&K Adams Inc., initially protested the award, but the company withdrew its objection when it became clear that its efforts might call into question the overall integrity of the city's minority business program.
The other company that met the specifications, Potts & Callahan Inc., offered a much higher bid for the work - estimating it would cost $7.2 million. That firm didn't contest yesterday's award, though both Rawlings-Blake and Pratt said a protest from the company would have been difficult to overcome.
A third company, the Berg Corp., sent officers to testify against the award, saying that the compliance issues should disqualify P&J. "There have been plenty of bids thrown out for these kinds of MBE [Minority Business Enterprise] violations," said their attorney, former city solicitor Neal M. Janey Sr. But that company also had other compliance problems of its own.
Mayor Sheila Dixon said at a City Hall news conference that the veracity of the city's bidding process has not been damaged but said the controversy around yesterday's award is one of many instances leading her to conclude that the minority- and woman-owned business department needs to "do a better job across the board." The office should meet more frequently with contractors so the firms understand the compliance requirement and do a better job with record keeping, the mayor said.
But Rawlings-Blake and Pratt placed the fault squarely at the feet of the contractors, who they said frequently do business with the city and should know how the process works. Pratt abstained, and Rawlings-Blake voted for the award, saying she was reluctant to approve it but wants the long-delayed project to go forward.
The redevelopment of Uplands is a $200 million project to replace 100 acres of boarded-up apartments near Edmondson Avenue with new apartments, houses and condominiums. The city acquired the land from the federal government for $40 in 2004, but legal trouble mired the project.
It attracted attention recently because a development team including Ronald H. Lipscomb got the construction contract despite the recommendations of an independent panel. The state prosecutor is investigating gifts Lipscomb gave Dixon when the two had a brief personal relationship a few years ago, though there has been no indication that the probe has focused on Uplands.
Dixon denies that the relationship had any bearing on government decisions she made. She stayed silent during discussion of the Uplands contract at a pre-meeting of the Board of Estimates yesterday. She left before the matter came for a vote, but her two appointees on the board voted for it.
Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said ideally he would like to have contractors rebid on the project, but he said yesterday's vote was an "emergency" measure because the city is up against a May 2 deadline to spend down federal funds. Had the board rejected the contract yesterday, he said the rebidding process could have delayed the start of work until mid-December.
"If we have a couple of blizzards, we are dead," Graziano said. "The community shouldn't have to wait. It is urgent. I hate to get passionate about it, but I'm speaking on behalf of the people in that community." He also said the boarded up buildings have attracted vagrants and criminals. "It has been horrendous," he said. "There was a body found out there."