Fort Wayne contracts for many professional services on projects for which city employees do not have adequate expertise or manpower. These include engineering, legal, architectural, accounting and consulting services. The city will be contracting for millions of dollars of projects in the next several years, including $250 million to comply with the EPA combined sewer separation mandate. The professional service contracts involved in these projects will be very expensive, and we need to be certain we are getting the best value for our tax dollars.
Indiana state law requires competitive bidding for construction projects or purchase of commodities such as road salt. However, competitive bidding is not required for contracting of professional services and is even prohibited in some federal or state projects.
Fort Wayne is not prohibited by Indiana state law if it wishes to use a competitive bidding process for professional contracting for Fort Wayne projects.
One reason competitive bidding is not used in all professional contracting is the inherent difficulty in precisely quantitating the details of the scope of services required in these often complicated projects.
It often requires negotiation to determine exactly how the project will be done – which partly determines price.
One process used is called the Qualifications Based Selection system. The purchaser of services advertises the project and asks bidders to submit their qualifications. The purchaser selects the bidder seen as the best qualified and then negotiates the price. If purchaser and bidder agree, the contract is then submitted to the Board of Works and/or City Council for approval. If agreement isnt reached, the same process is repeated with the one deemed next most qualified until an agreement is reached. In practice, the first firm selected often gets the contract after negotiation.
The disadvantage of this process is that often City Council must decide on approval without competitive bidding in the marketplace to see whether other bidders would have had better ideas or a better price.
The contracting of professional services became an issue in last years mayoral election. In many instances, firms that had given multiple large campaign contributions were getting the preponderance of these large lucrative contracts. Some cities and states have passed pay to play laws that prohibit companies that give campaign contributions from competing for city contracts to avoid any possibility of contributions leading to favoritism in awarding of contracts.
City Council introduced an ordinance concerning pay to play, but it did not pass due to many factors – not the least of which was that Indiana state law may not have allowed it.
I believe it is imperative to inject more market-based competition into our citys method of contracting for professional services. An ordinance is being submitted to City Council that will require competition in professional service contracting. It involves a hybrid process that combines the best of the QBS system and competitive bidding. After the best qualified are selected, they are asked to submit competitive sealed proposals. The best bidders are then all negotiated with separately and final bids are submitted. The selection team picks the best bid (not always the lowest price).
With this method the City Council and/or Board of Works has the results of several final negotiated bids to compare on scope and price. I have always felt uncomfortable approving large contracts for city professional services based on negotiations with only one bidder – I never felt I truly knew whether we were getting a good deal or not. This new ordinance will inject more competition and transparency into the process. This should lead to better prices and even discovering better ideas on how to accomplish some projects by negotiating with multiple bidders.
The ordinance will be introduced Tuesday. This has already been reviewed with multiple city departments to get their ideas and improve it. City Council will again review it and debate it. If passed, I believe this will lead to more bidders, better prices and better ideas by ensuring an open, transparent, competitive process.