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Money keeps flowing from Cook Co. contractors to board prez Stroger

Monday, July 27, 2009
Daily Herald
by Robert McCoppin

Politically connected Cook County contractors chosen over lower bidders continue to cash in as their projects expand - and continue to contribute to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's campaign.

A recent Daily Herald-Better Government Association investigation found that only three of the county's 11 professional services contracts last year went to the lowest competitive bidder. All 11 contracts were in some way tied to political donors.

Now it turns out two contractors cited in the report will get paid much more than originally promised, and do work different from originally proposed. Yet, after significant changes were made to contracts involved, neither of the jobs was offered again for competitors to bid on.

The biggest cost increase came in a design contract with Roula Associates Architects of Chicago, which won a $2.5 million increase to a $4.3 million contract for a portion of a massive jail expansion project. That's 58 percent more than the firm originally said the job would cost.

The increase prompted Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Republican from Bartlett, to object during a construction committee meeting last week.

"I find it absolutely necessary that we go out and rebid this project entirely," he said.

Stroger referred questions on the subject to Bruce Washington, director of county construction, who said the change in work was due to major changes in the scope of the project, which calls for building a new five-story, 900-bed inmate intake center and medical treatment center at the county jail in Chicago.

The project is needed to comply with federal court orders requiring more space and better care for inmates, officials said.

Earlier this year, in response to new federal requirements, the county board increased the estimated budget for the entire project, including construction, from $45 million to $92 million.

In addition, the sheriff's office had objected to Roula's proposed aboveground, enclosed pedestrian walkways between buildings, noting that underground tunnels were already in place to transport inmates.

As the designers talked to the sheriff's department about moving inmates, doctors and medicine, Washington said, they realized the site of the building had to be moved within the jail complex to be next to Cermak Hospital, in part to minimize the transportation issues.

Asked why he didn't wait to request proposals for the job until the county had determined the correct site and gotten the federal report, Washington said he had no way of knowing when the latest of many federal updates would come out in the decades-old debate over inmate facilities.

As it is, construction will begin next year, with completion scheduled for 2012.

Roula was not the lowest bidder for the job to begin with, but Washington said its selection was based not only on price, but also on experience, skills and proposal.

In general, the county doesn't have a price or percentage point to trigger rebidding contracts.

"Ninety-five percent of the time, when you rebid it," he said, "it comes back higher."

On the same day Roula was hired in January of last year, the county also contracted with Delta Engineering of Chicago to install heating and air conditioning in part of the jail complex.

The board last week increased that original $250,000 contract by $79,000, for design of a new metal security ceiling. The ceiling was not part of the original work, but was added, Washington said, because jail officials realized the need for a secure ceiling to keep inmates from hiding themselves, drugs or weapons.

Both Roula and Delta, which had contributed to Stroger's campaign fund before getting their original contracts, recently donated again. Delta contributed $1,000 in February, and Roula gave $1,500 in May.

Scott Fee, associate professor of construction management at the University of Minnesota, said this was a prime chance to rebid the Roula job for a lower overall price. So much has changed since the original contract, including scope and price of the job, the availability of new federal stimulus money for green construction, and the housing collapse, which makes construction firms desperate for work.

"It just seems like a window of opportunity to get better pricing," he said.

Former ABC-7 political reporter Andy Shaw, now head of the Better Government Association, called this "contract abuse 101."

"We gave them a chance to clean up their act by pointing out the problems with ignoring the low bid and doling out contracts to contributors," he said. "Yet, when confronted with the need to change specifications, they still refuse to open up the process to nonpolitical participants."

To reduce the chance of political contributions influencing contracts, Schneider has proposed lowering county contribution limits from $1,500 per election to $250.

His proposal has been held up in the rules committee, but Chairman Joseph Mario Moreno said he would call the matter for a vote at the next meeting.

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