The Guilford County Board of Commissioners jumped out of the hot seat on Thursday, Jan. 17, but by doing so they may have landed right in the middle of a construction contract conundrum.

The board bought itself some time by postponing a decision on a major construction contract; however, it still has a big problem on its hands because it’s now left with two bad options.

At the board’s Jan. 17 meeting, the commissioners voted unanimously to postpone a decision on accepting a bid from New Atlantic Contracting Inc. to build a new Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility – a project with a total estimated cost of about $14 million when both land and construction costs are factored in.

New Atlantic had bid to handle the construction of the facility and it was the company with the lowest bid – $12 million.  However, in an effort led by Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, the Board of Commissioners didn’t accept that bid as planned on Jan. 17 because the company’s proposal called for zero percent participation by black-owned businesses.  The company did propose to have 25.3 percent of the contract work done by minority and women business enterprises (MWBE), but that was made up of 21.6 percent women-owned firms and 3.7 percent Hispanic-owned firms – with no black-owned firms in the mix.

At the Jan. 17 board meeting, both black and white commissioners had a lot of questions about the lack of black business participation, and the county commissioners meeting room on the second floor of the old Guilford County Court House was packed with prominent black leaders and black business owners who spoke out passionately against the exclusion.

One suggestion made that night: Go with the second lowest bidder.  Only, that would be a violation of state law.  Guilford County staff had held a bid process and determined that New Atlantic was the lowest “responsive and responsible bidder” – that is, the company had answered all of the county’s questions satisfactorily, was a capable company that could do the work and submitted the lowest bid.  State law requires the county to go with the lowest responsible bidder and it doesn’t allow the county to choose from the other bidders on the list after a bid process.

So the board punted by postponing the decision – but that move essentially leaves the county with two options: Go ahead and hire New Atlantic after all in spite of the concerns and outcry, or throw out all the bids and start over from scratch with a brand new bid process – something that is allowed by law.

The first option is the one that the commissioners – and many in the community – have already expressed major concerns about, and the second option is equally unappealing for a host of reasons.

Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Alan Branson and other commissioners say they have major concerns about throwing the bids out and starting over – namely because the county just did that on another major project.  The county went through a long detailed bid process for a roughly $17-million job to renovate the old jail in downtown Greensboro and, after contractors put in a great deal of time and effort on their proposals, the commissioners scrapped that project entirely just days before the county was set to accept a bid.

That type of reversal doesn’t make contractors and construction companies particularly eager to work with the county.  Branson said that doing the same thing a second time in a row on another major county contract will no doubt make companies even more reluctant to bid on Guilford County construction projects in the future.

Guilford County doesn’t want to look like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown.  These days, many construction companies have more work on their hands than they need so they’re much less likely to bid on a project that may bring headaches or may not materialize.

A second problem with starting over is that it sets the timetable back months for a badly needed Emergency Services project that’s been delayed and delayed for years.

A third problem is the project’s cost.  Guilford County Commissioner Alan Perdue said this week that he’s certain the construction cost will be higher than $12 million if the county holds another bid process.

“If we go out for bids again, we’re going to get a higher bid,” Perdue said.

The cost of materials and labor continues to rise and the county could see fewer bidders.

Alston said this week that he believes Guilford County needs to bite the bullet and start the process over.

“I think we should rebid it,” Alston said.

Perdue pointed out that New Atlantic did meet its MWBE goal – with over a quarter of the work going to female and minority firms.

“From an MWBE standpoint, [New Atlantic] exceeded the county’s goal and the state’s goal of participation,” Perdue said.

Perdue added that he had concerns about Guilford County starting to parse MWBE criteria into more specific categories than the state does.

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne is no doubt working overtime right now refreshing his knowledge of state statutes related to awarding county contracts.

On Jan. 17, Payne cautioned the board against going with the second lowest bidder.

“From everything I see,” Payne said in the afternoon work session, “New Atlantic contracting does fit the definition of responsible, responsive bidder – they’ve met all the bid requirements and they are the lowest bid.  If for whatever reason you don’t like the lowest responsible, responsive bidder, it would be inappropriate to instruct us to go to the second one.”

Payne added that the board does have the right to start the bid process over from the beginning.

The commissioners are expected to address the matter at their annual retreat in February.