Paul Brown: New Paltz government needs competitive bidding now

paul brown SQLast month, the New York State Authority Budget Office criticized the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency (UCIDA) for hiring auditors without using a competitive bidding process. UCIDA was cited in a report by the Budget Office as one of nine industrial development agencies (IDAs) in New York that did not use competitive bidding practices for professional services. These nine were compared with seven others that did. The conclusion of the study was that “The IDAs that did not seek competition in awarding these contracts paid 81 percent more than those IDAs that sought competition.”

Past elected officials of the town and village of New Paltz could be criticized for the same behavior, since they also chose not to employ competitive bidding as part of their decision-making process. In 2015, the town paid David Clouser & Associates $169,251.29 for engineering services. During that same year, the village paid the firm another $183,140.53, for a grand total of $328,976.82. No competitive bidding process was employed and no Requests for Proposal were sent out to the 22 or so other civil engineering firms in our area that advertise in the Ulster County yellow pages. Using the 81% overpayment calculation of the NYS Authority Budget Office, is it possible that the town and village could have saved over a quarter-of-a-million dollars for these services in 2015? Let’s say that only 40% could have been saved. Would local taxpayers have benefited from a $125,000 savings?

New York State General Municipal Law Section 103 clearly states that “… all contracts for public work involving an expenditure of more than twenty thousand dollars … shall be awarded by the appropriate officer … of a political subdivision, to the lowest responsible bidder furnishing the required security after advertisement for sealed bids in the manner provided by this section.” Certain “professional services” such as engineering, auditing and legal services can be exempted from this process if the elected officials of a municipality determine that the process is not warranted.

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When I contacted former Supervisor Susan Zimet in 2013 about the fact that David Clouser & Associates had been paid over $160,000 by the town the previous year, and asked her why she did not implement a competitive bidding process to ensure that our town was not wasting money, her response was, “An engineer is a consultant and therefore not open to competitive bidding.”

At about that same time, former long-serving village attorney Jack Zand explained to me that, while competitive bidding is not required when selecting certain consultants, the spirit of the New York General Municipal Code clearly encourages elected officials to periodically examine both the quality and cost of consulting services in a competitive environment. This thought was echoed by last month’s Budget Office report when it concluded that “Section 104b of General Municipal Law does require that goods and services not subject to competitive bidding requirements must still be obtained in a manner that assures that maximum quality services are obtained at the lowest possible costs.” As of this writing, the current administrations of the town and the Village of New Paltz have taken no action to employ a competitive bidding process in the assignment of engineering services being paid out of the 2016 budget.

In researching this issue, I reviewed several hundred invoices submitted to the town and village over the past five years by the Clouser engineering firm. I then categorized each and every activity. This analysis revealed that many of the activities could likely have been carried out by a professional planner, an attorney or, in many cases, by a well-trained Planning Board secretary. In fact, this is the usual practice in many other towns in Ulster County.

 

Mohonk Preserve Foothills project: An illustration

To illustrate this point, consider the invoices submitted to the town Planning Board by David Clouser & Associates for application review services on the Mohonk Preserve Foothills project, only one of dozens of applications before the Planning Board for which this firm has been providing engineering consulting services. During the Planning Board’s application process, an applicant submits the required forms, along with a project narrative and associated maps and site plans. The engineering consultant then reviews the materials and prepares a “review memo.” If the review memo calls for legitimate engineering-related changes, in the judgment of a majority of the Planning Board members, then the applicant is asked to submit a revision. Revised material may then be reviewed once again by the consultant, who may suggest further changes, and so on.

It turns out that 32 separate charges for “application review” services on the Foothills project were submitted by Clouser’s firm between January and October of 2015, for a total of $6,329. This amounts to roughly 50 hours (at $128 per hour) of application review for a project to construct an 80-vehicle parking lot and expand an existing parking area to accommodate an additional 20 vehicles. Moreover, the firm charged $857 during this same ten-month period to attend Planning Board meetings to discuss the project. Writing the application “review memos” necessitating further application revisions and submissions, cost the town $405. The firm also charged $345 to correspond with or speak on the phone to the Planning Board attorney, whose firm conducts and bills for a separate legal review of the project.

One might argue the possibility that all of these engineering fees were necessary and legitimate. However, please consider the following:

  • $653.40 to prepare four separate “issues lists” to which the applicant was required to respond;
  • $204.80 to review information supplied to the Planning Board by the attorney;
  • $371.20 to review written comments submitted by community members wishing to communicate with the Planning Board;

(What this has to do with professional engineering skills, you’ll have to ask the Planning Board. Whether the majority of the members even knows that these types of charges are being submitted is another good question. During my tenure as a member and chair of the town Planning Board, I read every written comment sent in by the public and encouraged my colleagues to do the same. I did not ask or expect the engineering consultant to read something addressed to the Planning Board. If a written comment led to an engineering-related question, I might at that point involve the engineer, or I might get the answer myself from the Ulster County Planning Department, the Board of Health or other relevant government agency.)

  • $115.20 to review correspondence;

(Correspondence from whom?)

  • $760.40 to review the Environmental Assessment Form (EAF).

(Part 1 is 13 pages long and is completed by the applicant. Part 2 is ten pages long and lists 18 topics that Planning Board members are expected to consider. The answers provided here represent the core of the work of the Planning Board. You can download this form from the Town of New Paltz website and determine for yourself how many of the 18 topics require the review of a professional engineer. At this point in the application process, the engineering input has presumably already been done, through a process of application reviews (32 in this case), review memos ($405 spent on these) and issues lists ($653.40). In many towns, the Planning Board secretary fills out Part 2 of the EAF, or a member of the Planning Board or, in some cases, the town planner.)

The total charge submitted to the Planning Board for the engineering review conducted on the Mohonk Preserve Foothills project was $11,753.20. This amount was charged prior to Dave Clouser’s recusal from the project due to the acquisition of his company by the engineering firm of Barton & Loguidice, which just happens to be the firm representing the Mohonk Preserve. In this capacity, Barton & Loguidice filled out Part 1 of the EAF and made those 32 revisions in response to Clouser’s application reviews, review memos and issues lists.

 

“Areas of disturbance” of the Foothills project

One legitimate reason for involving a professional engineer in the planning process has to do with the need for an applicant to have in place an effective Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) when causing an “area of disturbance” during construction. In the case of the Mohonk Preserve, the area of disturbance involves the construction of an 80-car parking lot and the expansion of an existing parking lot to accommodate an additional 20 vehicles. Of the total 857 acres of the Foothills parcel, 6.4 acres are involved in the parking project, representing 0.75% of the total area. Of those 6.4 acres, 2.1 will be converted to an impervious surface for parking, an area representing 0.25% of the total Foothills parcel.

The truth is that the adequacy of the Mohonk Preserve SWPPP was never in question, and the Planning Board members should have known this after Clouser’s first plan review. The additional 31 reviews were simply not necessary. At most, once the negotiations between the Planning Board and the Mohonk Preserve were completed, the approval of the final submission could have been, and usually is, made contingent upon a final SWPPP review. It didn’t happen because the Planning Board assigned the project to Clouser’s firm, passively allowed the work to go on with zero oversight, and rubber stamped and paid the invoices as they came in, no questions asked.

But the Planning Board is not alone. For example, the Town Board was billed $7,914.40 by Clouser’s firm for charges related to the feasibility of a sewer plant being located adjacent to the New Paltz High School. How do you feel about $115.20 of your tax money being paid to “Review social media information regarding statement made during the meeting with Steve Greenfield; provide an update of project status to Supervisor Zimet and Deputy Supervisor Jeff Logan?”

My hope is that a consideration of the facts provided here will accomplish two things. The first is that it will stimulate the thinking of the elected officials of our town and village to consider exactly what engineering services are required by their respective planning boards, building departments, highway and public works departments, as well as the town and village governments themselves.

The second is that our elected officials will recognize the need for oversight of the activities of outside consultants and a close review of all submitted invoices. I would ask them to think about the likelihood that they would, in their personal lives, hire a contractor to work on their home, leave him entirely to his own devices, not check on his work, then give him a check at the end of the job without reviewing what they are paying for. If they wouldn’t do that with their own money, let them not do it with ours.

I am happy to report that, on the first issue at least, one of our ten elected officials is already on board regarding the use of competitive bidding for professional services. Village Trustee Don Kerr told me, “I am a strong believer in the bid process, having seen it work well during my time on the school board. The architect that was hired to look at a joint municipal building was selected under a bid and proposal process at my pointed suggestion. I would advocate bidding for professional services such as engineering and legal services for our municipalities.”

When you consider that in the years 2013 and 2014 the town and village combined paid $1,033,487 to the Clouser engineering firm, the need for carefully and precisely drafted RFPs and the use of an effective competitive bidding process is glaringly obvious. It’s possible, of course, that another firm would have charged our community over a million dollars to carry out the same work, but we’ll never know because no other firm was invited to submit a bid.

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