GREENFIELD — A heated discussion over how the county should do business with engineering firms has divided members of the county commissioners.
The commissioners have been looking for a company to analyze public buildings so they can plan ahead for brick-and-mortar expenses.
Last month, commissioners Derek Towle and Tom Stevens decided to use DLZ Indiana, a firm the county has used for many county projects in the past. The consulting/engineering firm also has been a big contributor to commissioners’ election campaigns. But Commissioner Brad Armstrong, who wasn’t at the meeting last month, said two weeks ago more companies should be considered.
Tuesday, as representatives from DLZ and two other firms stood by to give presentations to the commissioners, a heated debate arose over how the board should watch out for county expenses while hiring quality contractors.
“I don’t think you did your due diligence in making that decision before you looked into another company,” Armstrong told Stevens and Towle. “Our job is to purchase services. DLZ has done a lot of work in the county; not all of it has been to the level that I think is acceptable.”
While commissioners had agreed two weeks ago that more companies could make presentations, the plan fell apart Tuesday when DLZ gave a presentation without a price. The other two companies had listed a cost for their services.
“I want to look at cost and what it is you provide,” Armstrong said.
But Stevens, before he even heard presentations from Etica and RQAW, said DLZ stands above any other firm because of its past work with the county and its familiarity with the courthouse and annex.
“I don’t want this county to ever have the reputation of making professional selections based on price,” he added.
At issue is bidding law that does not require local units of government to get price quotes from firms that offer professional services. While materials and products over $50,000 must be bid on, studies do not.
Armstrong said it shouldn’t matter: The commissioners should seek bids on contracts to get the best price. That’s especially true, he added, because of missteps DLZ has made in recent years.
The company was hired to perform a study on the Hancock County Jail last year, but a $33,000 expense on rusted jail doors was overlooked. And while it was before his time as an elected official, Armstrong also points to engineering flaws with the courthouse renovation project and the construction of the annex, both of which DLZ worked on.
A representative from DLZ could not be reached for comment.
“I’m just coming from the private sector where we ask what things cost,” Armstrong said after the meeting. “I think that enters into it. If I walk into a car dealership and ask to buy a car and don’t ask what the price is, I’m most likely going to leave with a really nice $80,000 car. At some point, I’m going to have to pay for it.”
But Stevens had his own analogy, saying quality needs to be considered first and the price negotiated after the best firm is chosen.
“If you were going to have open-heart surgery, would you go out and find the cheapest heart surgeon you can find?” he said. “You’re talking about professional services as opposed to goods.”
All three firms gave presentations on what they would do for the county, analyzing all of its buildings to help commissioners and council members plan for future expenses. While DLZ did not give a price, estimates for the other companies varied widely: Etica’s quote was $3,000, while RQAW’s was $50,000.
After hearing all three presentations, Stevens made a motion for the county to select DLZ for the job. Armstrong moved to have DLZ submit a price so they could weigh all three companies at the April 1 meeting.
That left it to President Derek Towle to make the decision. He agreed with Stevens: DLZ will be hired, and a price will be negotiated later.
Towle said afterward he generally agrees that engineering companies should be hired based on qualifications, and since DLZ has done work with the county in the past, it makes sense to hire the company again.
That’s especially true, Towle added, because DLZ did the jail study. The other county building studies will be done in a similar format, Towle said, making all of the studies easier to compare and plan ahead.
DLZ has a long history of doing business with Hancock County. According to records from the auditor’s office, more than $170,000 was spent with the firm since 2010, mostly on road and bridge studies. But the company also has done contracted services for the commissioners and surveyor: Last year’s jail study totaled more than $4,500.
And while the county has frequently hired DLZ, the company also gives back to elected officials. DLZ has consistently contributed to all three commissioners’ election campaigns over the years. The commissioners’ political action committee, which benefits Towle and Stevens, received $500 from DLZ last year. Armstrong received $200 from DLZ the last time he ran for office, in 2012, campaign finance records show.
Towle is running for re-election this year. Both Towle and Stevens said political contributions did not play into their decision to hire DLZ.
Towle’s son also recently had an internship with DLZ, but Towle said that also didn’t affect his decision.
Bottom line, Towle said, is DLZ has a strong knowledge of the county’s buildings and was the best company to hire.
“You have to use your gut to decide which one is going to be the best based on the information you have,” Towle said.
Towle and Stevens also defended DLZ for not including the rusted jail doors in last year’s study.
“Are they going to see every single thing? I don’t believe it. I don’t think anybody will,” Towle said.
But Armstrong said the jail doors should have been noticed, and he worries about what kind of items might be missed with the upcoming studies on the rest of the county’s buildings.
This isn’t the first time the selection of companies for engineering contracts has turned into a debate in county government. In 2009, Armstrong wanted to see quotes from firms that were vying to write a study on building a new jail. County officials went with Schenkel and Schultz without seeking prices first.
Now, five years later, Armstrong says he’ll stick to his guns and continue to ask that bids be given for professional services.
“That’s our job. That’s why people elect us: to spend their money wisely,” Armstrong said. “I just think it doesn’t hurt to ask what something costs.