Despite serious misgivings about cost and a bidding process that left them with little choice, the five Palm Coast City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a $425,000 plan to install “shades” over playground equipment at four city parks by late summer. The shades–essentially, differently-designed and oversize parasols that extend over certain areas–will be installed at Waterfront, Belle Terre, Ralph Carter and Seminole Woods parks.
The 40-minute discussion however exposed the extent to which some council members are dissatisfied with being kept in the dark by the administration about the details of costly projects until the tail end of the process, when they’re asked for a vote—and a no vote could harm the city’s reputation with contractors.
The shades project also signaled again that the city is still more prepared to spend large sums on comfort or luxury items than on street lights or sidewalks, as one of two people who addressed the council put it. “I suggest that Palm Coast needs to stop looking for ‘nice’ and focus on safety. Safety would include lights and sidewalks,” John Brady, a former mayoral candidate, told the council, quoting from his own letter published in the News-Journal. “We need street lights, sidewalks, not shades, trees or signs.”
That aspect of the issue did not seem to concern council members, at least based on their open discussion, but City Manager Jim Landon’s method of keeping council members at bay until late in the process did.
In this case, council member Nick Klufas took the unusual step, in recent days, to analyze the proposed contract with Shade Systems, Inc., the 13-year-old company based in Ocala the city is contracting with, and raise questions about costs before the matter was presented for a vote Tuesday. He had in essence stepped squarely into Landon’s turf, a step no council member has taken so directly in recent years, though even then it was too late to change course. Klufas and project manager Carl Cote went as far as contacting Shade Systems to investigate the matter.
“I was a little taken aback because $400,000 is a lot for a shade system,” Klufas said. “Now, after investigating the different proposals, I did find that shade systems clearly had the most elaborate and superior design and summation of what they’re going to provide for the city, but inside of their proposal, they had shown examples of what they had previously completed, and there were projects such as Point Park, which is down in Miami, that were similar to a single instance of what we’re going to be installing at the four different parks, and that project had been completed at $79,000. So $79,000 to me times four is less than what they came in at with their contract amount.”
He was more comfortable with $375,000, and making a counter-offer to the contractor. Nobile liked the idea. But the city attorney said the approach would not be possible without going out to bid again.
The difference in price, Cote said, was the greater heights required in Palm Coast, because of the sort of playground equipment used locally. “To me I think we’re right in line with that particular project,” Cote said.
Klufas disagreed. “One of the most pointed questions that we asked was directly why was that project able to come in at $79,000 compared to what we have divided by four, and it was very telling because one of the answers he provided was that he had a competitor bidding in that project and he needed to come in at a lower figure,” he said. “So it means he’s capable of providing the same type of project at the level of quality that we’re expecting, at a lower cost. Taking to account the magnitude of our project, economies of scale would tend to lead you in a direction where that dollar per square foot is actually still on the wrong side of the equation.” ($8,000 was shaved off the cost by eliminating a video rendering of the proposal.)
Klufas’s strongest ally on the issue was council member Steven Nobile, so recently an antagonist. Nobile endorsed Klufas’s approach, but he was concerned about going back on the request for proposals because of the message that might send out to prospective contractors. “I just don’t want to create a bad name for us for $20 or $30,000,” he said. But, he noted, the process revealed a disconnect between administrative work and council awareness that he’s been equally concerned about.
“I completely concur that this might be a little bit too late but perhaps this is an opportunity to discuss how we could have approached this a little bit differently in the future,” Nobile said.
“Nick brings up something that has been a passion of mine since I’ve been on this board,” Nobile continued. “Getting involved, the council getting involved with these types of processes before we’re sitting here when the process is done. One of the things I proposed a couple of years ago was that like we assign council members to different external organizations, like TPO, TDC”—the Transportation Planning Organization, the Tourist Development Council—“we should be internally assigned to departments so we can work with those departments, not be in charge of anything, just to be a fly on the wall type of scenario. Like Nick sees this and he goes, yeah, I don’t know that I like us doing this, for whatever reason. He can bring that to council before we’re at this point. Because like I say right now, my only problem is I don’t want to turn back, we’ve already invested too much in it, and the process can hurt us if we say give us a bid and say, ah, never mind, we were just kidding, now give us another bid. But these are the things if a council member has an issue, we could bring up before it gets here, and we can discuss it.”
Landon, who bristles at council members looking over his shoulder into the administrative workings of the city, tried to dissuade the approach. “I feel obligated to comment,” he said. The city’s procurement policy, he said, “has to do with state law, it specifically says thou shall not contact or communicate with elected officials who will make the final decision during the selection process. It’s only after we’ve ranked them and made the recommendation, then, if you have questions.”
Landon was broad-brushing the issue, as Klufas reminded him. “The process that would involve some type of overview from city council would occur between the steps of Little John Engineering providing renderings and our determination of what our proposed budget would be,” Klufas said, referring to a city consultant. “I think if our policy—an d I understand the volatility that that creates if you have a firm that’s able to contact a city council member, I understand the transparency being thwarted there—but the actual process would occur in that transition phase where we say, ok, we have the renderings of what we would like to install at these complexes, now is the time when we’re able to set the budget before we go out to bid.”
“In other words we could work around that stuff and still be involved,” Nobile said. Mayor Milissa Holland asked for a workshop on how the RFP and the bidding process works in the city.
Landon said the city has presented concepts to the council before, on larger projects, and that it was a “judgment call” as to which projects were presented ahead of time to council, and which were not. He ended by uttering the words that, like a poker player’s unfailing tell, have often in the past indicated his irascibility or contempt for the way a discussion had veered out of his control: “Good discussion, good feedback.”