If the city of Meriden had followed the normal process, bidding for work on the Maloney and Platt high school reconstruction projects probably would have been more competitive, with amounts coming in closer to estimates.
But after a contentious debate last year, the city opted to conduct bidding under project labor agreements. Although they set laudable goals for local hiring and require prevailing wage, the agreements create an uneven playing field, favoring union contractors and discouraging nonu nion contractors from bidding. The decision to go with project labor agreements limited competition unnecessarily at a time when all contractors needed the work.
In April, bids for Maloney came back $7.69 million over estimates. Officials had to make changes to the floor plan and substitute less expensive materials (a process known as “value engineering”) before successfully rebidding.
Last month, the Platt bids also came back high, by $6.76 million. Project officials think they can bring the numbers in line by whittling down and rebidding three of the 21 bid packages — electrical, mechanical and plumbing — in the next few weeks.
It’s the best option for keeping the Platt High School project on track at this point, even though city councilors who oppose the labor agreements finally succeeded in getting the Platt agreement rescinded last week.
Their victory simply comes too late to make much of a difference.
Rebidding the whole project without the labor agreement could lead to costly delays. Due to the improving economic climate, it also might not result in greater competition. Contractors can only take on so many large, long-term projects. Other state and municipal projects have moved forward in the interim, while construction has picked up in general. Right next door, the town of Southington has signed contracts and broken ground on a major twoschool renovation project in just the last month, for example.
And while value engineering seems to have a negative connotation, Maloney project officials were able to cut seven percent of the total project budget of $107.5 million through that process. I seriously doubt Maloney students will miss the extended mullion caps ($17,000) or larger secondary entrance canopies ($50,000).
In fact, the ease with which the construction manager made those cuts showed how little previous effort had been made to control costs in the design phase. Most of the potential changes and substitutions had never been discussed or debated publicly — a troubling failure of the school building process which city officials should seriously try to avoid in the future (though I’m sure they won’t, unfortunately).
The city’s best course is to move forward with the value engineering and limited rebidding for Platt as recommended by the construction manager. Hopefully, like with Maloney, it brings costs in line with estimates. If the re-bidding in those three areas is done without the project labor agreement, as per the council resolution, the city may or may not see greater participation from non-union contractors. But either way, after value engineering, it won’t likely be the determining factor in lowering costs, though it could provide an additional benefit.
Rebidding the entire project, however, would be a fool’s errand. Better to get the Platt reconstruction on budget and shovels in the ground as soon as possible. Reach Managing Editor/News Eric Cotton at firstname.lastname@example.org or (203) 317-2344. Follow him on Twitter @ecotton3