When it comes to the bidding process and awarding contracts, Atlantic County has to deal with two issues: lack of bidders and lack of locals.
But is the number of one-bid contracts awarded by the county, as well as the low number of Atlantic County businesses submitting bids, a neglected problem or just the blunt reality of business in South Jersey?
Democrats, including at-large Freeholder Colin Bell, the senior of two Democrats on the nine-person board, say that not enough has been done to attract bidders. They have routinely made the issue a prominent one during campaigns.
Republicans, including County Executive Dennis Levinson, say they have made strides in trying to attract more bidders — locals and otherwise — but attracting them can be difficult.
The Atlantic County website lists all details of bids and RFPs, or requests for proposals. Several RFPs were for “pools” of contractors and received multiple bids for multiple contracts. But of those in which just a single contract was awarded, eight of the latest 18 RFPs received only a single bid, and another four received just two bids.
Attracting bidders from within the county also proved difficult.
Out of nine bids for bond counsel and six bids for appraisal services, only one bid was received from Atlantic County.
Other contracts are not awarded through RFPs, which require bidders to respond in detail how they would meet specifications and may be rejected, but through sealed bids.
For those contracts, none of the six bids for a $4.8 million project to repair the JFK Bridge in Longport was from Atlantic County.
On the other hand, of two bids for a $2.5 project at Lake Lenape Dam, one — the winning bidder — was from Atlantic County.
“For one, I normally vote against any single-bid contract if the bidder is not from Atlantic County,” Bell said. “I’ve urged the administration, which is in charge of putting out RFPs and bids, to do more to get the word out.”
Levinson countered that “it’s very easy for detractors to complain about single-bid contracts. But we do our due diligence. We send out dozens and dozens of emails. We maintain vendors lists. But we don’t know what the reason is we don’t get more bids.”
Added Bell, “I’m not really happy with the efforts made, if any, to address that.”
One issue, Bell said, is the timing of when contracts go out to bid.
“Insurance contracts — there’s a single bidder, and premiums are going up and so are deductibles,” Bell said. “We (should) change the rules so that contracts go out to bid 60 to 90 days before a contract is up, so we could reject bids and choose to go out to bid again.”
For insurance, Bell said, “they award the contract on Tuesday, and the old insurance policy expires the coming Monday. You can’t leave the county without insurance, so that puts us in a bind.”
One solution would be for insurance contracts to be longer than one year, which he said the board is considering.
Levinson said that the county can’t turn down a bid just because it’s the only one, or just because of the bidder’s location.
“Let’s just say for the sake of argument that we’re going out to bid on a $50,000 project,” Levinson said. “A single qualified bid comes in at $38,000 — below what the estimate is to complete this. Why in the world would we throw that out? And legally could we throw it out if it meets all the requirements for the bid?”
“Sometimes,” Levinson said, “15 potential bidders would join a pre-bid meeting, and we’d still only get one to two bidders.”
Why so few?
For some of the smaller potential bidders, “stuff gets expensive,” said Richard Perniciaro, director of Atlantic Cape Community College’s Center for Regional and Business Research. “Small- and medium-sized companies really have to sit and decide whether it’s worthwhile to put in a bid. … It takes time and effort to put together all the paperwork. A bid takes a lot of time. And if you lose the bid, you don’t get that money back.”
As an example, companies contracted to work the grounds at Atlantic Cape Community College are required to have $1 million in insurance, which many smaller companies don’t have. They might also not be familiar with the bonding process needed for government contracts.
“They’re not people used to working with bonds, and it’s a little daunting,” he said. “Big companies are used to doing that stuff.”
Another wrinkle is that by law in New Jersey, local governments and agencies don’t have to go out to bid for professional services, such as legal or accounting services. They can go out to bid using the “fair and open” process — which then still allows for campaign contributions from those professionals — or go through the “nonfair and open” process, which allows them to select a professional without bidding but bans contributions.
“I don’t want to say that has been abused, but it’s one (aspect) that’s least understood,” Perniciaro said.
Atlantic County, for its part, goes out to bid for all contracts, DelRosso said.
“Every single thing goes out to the community, regardless of whether it meets the bid threshold,” DelRosso said, which ranges from $17,500 to $37,000 for various contracts. “We put everything out to bid.”
One recent contract came close to the ideal: an RFP for engineering and architectural work for new Public Works facilities that saw 20 bidders — five from Atlantic County — and a winning bid from an Atlantic City firm, SOSH Architcects, “a local, very competitive firm.”
In the end, Levinson said, if a single bid is rejected, the county could not just rebid the same project.
“We cannot go back out again with the same specifications,” Levinson said. “You have to change the specs to try to attract more people. And if a guy comes in good faith, below estimates, a good firm, are we going to say, ‘Forget it, it’s a single bidder’? No!”
“Nothing sinister occurs,” Levinson said. “Everyone has the same shot in Atlantic County.”