NEW PORT RICHEY — On the brink of losing a major bid, and over the protests of county staff, a well-connected Pasco engineering firm on Tuesday snatched the contract to build a regional hurricane shelter from a Tampa-based competitor that had been ranked the top choice by a county committee.
Tuesday's drama began with the way county commissioners went over their staff's recommendation to pick Holiday-based Spring Engineering.
County staff had written a proposal to award the contract to Tampa's Mathews Construction as part of the consent agenda, which includes dozens of items that commissioners typically approve with no discussion and a single vote.
Instead, County Commissioner Jack Mariano asked to pull the hurricane shelter out for discussion. County staff defended Mathews, but ultimately, commissioners unanimously voted for Spring Engineering.
Spring Engineering had submitted a lower bid, called a "guaranteed maximum price," of $7.2-million ($7.5-million if the shelter is built to a higher wind resistance standard). Mathews' bid was $7.9-million for the lower standard and $8.3-million for the higher.
But county staff argued the design-build contract wasn't supposed to be judged by price quotes. Mathews' experience with hurricane-resistant buildings outshone Spring Engineering, which has no experience with such buildings, they said.
"It's a qualifications-based approach," said Scott Stromer, Pasco's purchasing director. "The criteria called for experience."
A third-ranked bidder, Biltmore Construction, came in with higher quotes of $8.1-million and $8.2-million.
But, one by one, commissioners went to bat for Spring Engineering, saying the firm had demonstrated enough engineering expertise in building local fire stations and schools.
"Spring has proven they are very capable," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri. "I believe if I sat on that (selection) committee, I would have chosen a Pasco County firm. They are a good firm, they've been around for a number of years. If it's a fly-by-night firm, I can understand. I would like to see Spring receive this bid."
Commissioner Michael Cox said the award process would first assess qualifications, and once a short list was developed on that basis, "everyone on that shortlist would be qualified to do this."
And noting the cost differences, Commissioner Ann Hildebrand asked: "Since when in Pasco has cost not been an issue?"
Rich Bekesh, Spring's president, spoke briefly, assuring commissioners that he would guarantee the price.
"There will not be any change orders," he said, referring to the design amendments that jack up project prices. "We've worked very hard to get to that price."
Bekesh's firm enjoys good relations with politicians. He told the Pasco Times he's known Hildebrand since he was 7. As he stood up to speak, Mulieri jokingly gushed, "Oh, there's Rich Bekesh, he's so cute."
Bekesh's firm has contributed $1,000 each to the reelection campaigns of Hildebrand and Mariano, bundled as two $500 donations per candidate.
But Bekesh pointed out that it was all five commissioners who voted for his firm, and said the donations have nothing to do with what happened Tuesday.
"My ethical and moral standards are high enough that when I support a candidate, it's not for them to do me any favors," he said. "All five of them did a great job today. This shouldn't be about me."
Tuesday's decision is the first step in the process to build the shelter. The actual contract amount and facility design are still subject to negotiations.
The decision blindsided Mathews, whose president, David Oellerich, was not even aware the item would come up for discussion.
"We had no forewarning it would be a discussion item," Oellerich said. "We had already been contacted by county staff, and we were going to have a meeting scheduled with them Thursday (to discuss building the shelter)."
Oellerich said he's waiting to get official word from Pasco on why the award went to Spring. If it's because of price, he said, he would question the decision. All bidders had been told that price would not be the determining factor, he said.
"There's not enough information in the design criteria to provide an apples-to-apples analysis of pricing," he said. "Who's to say that Mathews, based on the same engineering assumptions, can't provide the same or less in price?"
Mathews has been involved in about 50 projects, including an emergency operations center in Charlotte County and hurricane-resistant reinforcements to the All People's Life Center in Hillsborough County, but has never built a hurricane shelter like Pasco's proposal, Oellerich said. But its partner firm, PBS&J, has designed many such shelters, he said.
When commissioners asked if they would be within legal rights to award the contract to Spring, County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said, "I believe you are, as long as you have evaluated that Spring is the most responsible proposal before you."
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)909-4613.