Douglas County officials are getting ready for a major renovation project later this year, completely removing an old roof and installing a new one on the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.
The project is expected to cost $625,000, but county commissioners agreed Wednesday not to go out for bids. Instead, the contract will go to Garland Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, a supplier that that has an exclusive arrangement through an organization that offers prenegotiated contracts for a large variety of supplies and services to state and local governments throughout the country.
The organization, U.S. Communities, founded in 1999, allows more than 55,000 local governments and educational institutions to piggyback on contracts that previously would have gone through competitive bids.
In addition to Douglas County, both the Lawrence school district and the city of Lawrence belong to U.S. Communities and have used it for a variety of projects, including contracting with Garland for roofing projects—even though Garland is typically more expensive than other suppliers.
"Typically it's higher (and) it's got a longer warranty," said Kirk Hinnergardt of Diamond-Everly Roofing Contractors, which installed a Garland roof on Kennedy School last year. "Their warranties are pretty user-friendly, but they are higher than everybody else."
Local officials say using the cooperative arrangement for new roofing saves them time and expense, especially on large, complicated projects for which local agencies lack the in-house expertise to manage a competitive bid process.
“It's very complex when you get into it,” said Jackie Waggoner, purchasing director for Douglas County. “We've never taken a roof down to the deck, and that's what we'd be doing in this case. We have all of our core 24-7 operations in that building.”
Waggoner said the alternative would have been to hire an outside project manager with expertise in roofing contracts and to have that firm interview several different roofing companies. She estimated that would have added $45,000 to $60,000 to the cost of materials and installation.
But Mike Greenamyre, owner of American Roofing in Leavenworth, said he believes local governments end up paying more because Garland uses what are often called “proprietary bid specifications,” meaning when it only hires local contractors who are approved to install the company's products, and they only use Garland's name-brand materials, even when equivalents are available from other suppliers.
The result, he said, is that the only thing being competitively bid on a local project is the cost of the labor.
Greenamyre was upset recently when he was unable to bid on roofing projects with the Lawrence school district because it is using the U.S. Communities master contract with Garland for a number of upcoming roof projects at Lawrence High School and Schwegler School.
"So the school district takes the low bid of the labor," he said. "Then they go to the material column that nobody gets to see. There's no competition in this. So the salesman of the product goes down and says, 'We're going to need this many rolls of this, and this many rolls of that,' and they add it all up. And if they're over budget, they just discount it until it's right to the budget."
But Kyle Hayden, assistant superintendent for business and operations for the Lawrence schools, said that's how many roofing companies operate.
"Garland's not the only one doing it," Hayden said. "Their competitors are doing the same thing. It's just a matter of district preference a lot of times."
Hayden said that since 2004, the school district has used U.S. Communities contracts for a wide range of big-ticket items, ranging from computers and telecommunications equipment to office supplies—even the artificial turf on high school football fields.
He said the district has no hard and fast rules about when it uses U.S. Communities as opposed to seeking competitive bids. “I think it just depends on preferences a lot of times, and sometimes history plays into that and what you've had success with, and what you may not have had success with.”
But Hayden said he doubts that the district will use the U.S. Communities contracts much on projects that would be funded through the proposed $92.5 million bond issue that will be voted on Tuesday, because that's a large enough set of projects to justify hiring an outside project manager to handle the bidding.
Lawrence city manager David Corliss said the decision often comes down to balancing the desire to get competitive bids whenever possible with a desire to get products or services that are known to have strong track records.
“Our strongest desire is to always competitively bid projects, but sometimes we can get as good of a project, or better, through other selection means,” he said.
Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the Kansas Legislature to prohibit local governments from using proprietary bid specifications.
Senate Bill 150 was a response to one of the recommendations from Gov. Sam Brownback's School Efficiency Task Force. It would have prohibited local governments from using bid specifications that favored one product or manufacturer by setting unreasonable requirements. That bill, however, did not pass out of the Senate Committee on Ethics, Elections and Local Government.