Mowing contract concerns prove to have been valid

Photo by Norman Schimmel

On Jan. 10, the majority of the Sarasota County commissioners raised questions about a recommendation from the Procurement Department regarding the awarding of the county’s annual roadside mowing bid.

The low bidder for each of the county’s three mowing zones — north, central and south — was Bloomings Landscape and Turf Management Inc. of Sarasota, whose bid was less than half what the second-lowest bidder had proposed, about $3.8 million.

Nonetheless, Procurement Manager Mark Thiele told the board, “We have all the confidence that this particular vendor, who has been doing most of the [mowing] work for the last six years [in the county] can continue doing the work.”

With Thiele having provided answers to all their questions, the board finally voted 4-1 to go along with Thiele’s recommendation to award the bid to Bloomings for $1,854,000 per year. The contract included the possibility of two one-year renewals.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta cast the “No” vote.

On May 22, Thiele appeared before the commissioners again to tell them the county would be dismissing Bloomings, because it was not able to perform the work as expected. Until a new mower was hired, Thiele said, 20 county employees would be cutting the grass.

Thiele’s recommendation was for the commission to allow staff to secure quotes for the work through the end of the year — but no longer than six months — until new bids could be secured.

“I don’t think it’s any secret I am very upset about this whole process,” Barbetta told Thiele. “You assured us there was no problem … and now you want to start over again.”

On Jan. 10, Thiele told the board his staff had determined several reasons for the big differences between the bids submitted for the roadside mowing. For example, he said of Bloomings, “They don’t buy a lot of equipment. They lease it as they need it.”

Thiele added that the firm also hired more staff as needed; the number of employees on the payroll changed on a seasonal basis.

“I wish, Mr. Thiele, that I shared your confidence,” Commissioner Jon Thaxton said. “I don’t.”

Commissioner Nora Patterson said she had had several conversations with Thiele in advance of the meeting, to question the recommendation. However, she also was concerned, she said, about the other bids being “hugely more expensive.”

Chairwoman Christine Robinson pointed out that she had had complaints about the roadside mowing in South County since her first day on the commission, in December 2010.

With Thiele maintaining full support for Bloomings, the 4-1 vote was cast.

‘Early termination’

Then, on May 15 Thiele and David A. Cash, the county’s director of operations and maintenance, sent a memo to the commission, saying Bloomings had requested early termination of its contract for the mowing services. It had ceased all work on May 7, the memo added.

Although Bloomings had proposed to keep mowing if the county allowed it to change certain conditions of the contract, the memo said, staff had deemed the proposals unacceptable.

Barbetta suggested the commission approve contracts with the second-lowest bidder in each zone, instead of pursuing quotes for the work for the short-term.

However, Patterson pointed out again that the second- and third-lowest bids were much higher, adding that she was not willing to “go back and pay twice as much. … I don’t think it’s very fair to our budget.”

Barbetta then pointed to Thiele and Cash’s recommendation to “solicit quotes and approve contracts for interim mowing services for an aggregate amount not to exceed $1,058,000 for up to six months or upon the award of a new contract  … whichever comes first.”

“Why did you put a number in there?” Barbetta asked. “It’s like playing your trump card.”

Thiele said it was common for firms to ask what figure county staff had in mind for a project, and staff’s practice was to tell them.

“It may be a common practice,” Patterson said, “but it’s idiotic, and it’s one people have commented on to me for years.”

Thiele told the commission May 22 that he expected it would take four to six months to get a bid “back on the streets” if the commissioners were to decide to follow that course of action.

Saying they needed more time to discuss the matter, the commissioners asked Thiele to come back before them on May 23.

The other bids

When Thiele stood at the podium the next day, he said the second-lowest bidder in the north and south zones — Walker Service Inc. of Bradenton — would be willing to do the work for the remainder of the calendar year.

Storm Tech of Sarasota was the second-lowest bidder in the central zone, he added, but the owner said it would be difficult to take on the work at this point.

Thiele added that Walker had said it would handle the work at a cost of $1.3 million for the north zone, $1.5 million for the south zone and $863,000 for the central zone, for a total of $3.663 million.

However, the figures he provided the commission showed Walker had proposed $969,985.54 for the central zone.

“We’re essentially doubling our cost from the previous year’s,” Cash told the board.

Thaxton compared the situation to seeing a car ad “which was just really kind of a come-on.” In this case, he said, the board was trying to compare realistic numbers to the original bid.

“I would suggest to you that that $1.8 million [the original contract amount with Bloomings] is that advertised car price that you’re never going to be able to buy the car for,” he said, because of the extra expenses of taxes, the tag and dealer prep.

“That’s a great analogy,” Barbetta said.

Ultimately, Patterson made a motion to accept the recommendation Thiele had proposed the previous day — to allow staff to get quotes for mowing on a temporary basis while a new bid package was prepared, with the payment for the next six months not to exceed $1,058,000.

The quotes would be for work on a monthly basis, Cash clarified.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason seconded the motion. It passed 3-2, with Barbetta and Thaxton opposing it.

“This whole thing’s been a mess,” Patterson said.