BROOKSVILLE — A push by the County Commission to help local firms get a leg up on competitors for government work has hit a legal pothole.
An out-of-town engineering firm that won, and then lost, the county's recommendation to perform design work at the environmentally sensitive Peck Sink has filed a formal bid protest.
This new twist could jeopardize state funding by further delaying the time-sensitive project. County officials have said that the project has already fallen behind on its timeline and construction must be done by November 2011.
On Tuesday, commissioners were eager to set a policy to give local firms preference in certain searches for professional services. The county already gives special consideration to local companies in bids to provide goods or certain other services.
As part of that effort, the board rejected all three submitted proposals to design a passive park at the 80-acre Peck Sink, southwest of the city.
In documents delivered to the county on Thursday, King Engineering Associates Inc., which had won the recommendation for the work from a county review team, threatened legal action if the commissioners do not revisit their decision to toss the bids.
"The comments of commissioners during deliberations made it clear that all bids were rejected so that the process could be re-calibrated and subsequently re-advertised to make it likely that a specific Hernando County engineering firm would receive the proposed project,'' wrote attorney Derrill McAteer, who is representing King.
McAteer pointed out that the county cannot abandon its selection process after its review committee has made its recommendation.
"Stated plainly, the board decided to change the rules after the contest was concluded,'' McAteer wrote.
"Neither county staff nor the commission argued that King's proposal was insufficient in form or quality, or that King had engaged in any sort of conduct that would disqualify their winning proposal,'' he wrote.
He points out that the request for proposals made clear that the decision would be made based on qualifications, expertise, experience relevant to the unique nature of the project, and the suggested approach to the project.
"Nowhere is it mentioned that local residency of the submitting firm is a proper quality to be considered,'' McAteer wrote.
He argues that if the county wants to change its policy, that should apply to future projects, not one that has already followed the entire county assessment and review process and has reached the approval stage.
King Engineering, which has a number of offices including one in Tampa, was ranked tops for the job by the five-member review committee. The first vote came out as a tie between King and the local firm A Civil Design Group, but the county's tiebreaker rules state that the winner would be the firm that got the most No. 1 rankings.
King Engineering was ranked No. 1 by two county planners and a representative of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which is providing funding for the project.
A Civil Design Group was ranked first by two committee members, County Commissioner Jeff Stabins and Charles Mixson, a county planner. The third bidder was Wade Trim Inc.
The commissioners voted to reject all of the bids and allow the firms to resubmit. Commissioner Rose Rocco cast the only vote against rejecting all of the proposals.
McAteer also criticized the move to have the firms resubmit bids.
"King has suffered irreparable harm in that its intellectual efforts have been exposed to their competition, putting our client at a distinct disadvantage when this project is re-advertised,'' he stated.
Purchasing director Jim Gantt warned commissioners that the previous policy had been tweaked in the past but the existing tiebreaking system was working. "We don't have problems,'' he said.
County Attorney Garth Coller said he didn't think the proposed change would cause problems but that policies concerning giving business to local firms were a "contentious'' area of law.
Now that the protest has been filed, the issue will return for another discussion of the county commissioners, Gantt said Thursday. If it is not resolved there, King Engineering can seek a court injunction against the county.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.