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Another glitch threatens another project

By Staff
Feb.22, 2004
Glitches in the city of Meridian's bidding practices for public works projects are becoming all too commonplace, and it might be argued that a review by an independent, outside authority is needed.
The third incident in recent memory now threatens to extend the delay in providing water and sewer service to the Interstate 20/59 Industrial Park. The basic dispute involves dissemination of conflicting information as to the deadline for receiving construction bids.
The city published a legal notice with one deadline and Engineering Associates, a Pearl-based consultant on the project, notified potential bidders of a different deadline. As it turned out, the apparent low bid was submitted 20 minutes before the legal 11:30 a.m. deadline on Feb. 3. It was exactly $10,000 less than the second lowest bid, which was submitted at the 11 a.m. deadline as stated by Engineering Associates.
The fundamental question is why would anyone take it upon themselves to change the deadline on an official, published legal notice?
Readers might recall the controversy and subsequent lawsuit over changing specifications for the North Meridian water tower. Also, bids to design a controversial interchange to serve the industrial park had to be reviewed when it was discovered that a city employee was directed to change her evaluation of the engineering firms that were bidding for the job.
The empirical evidence in all these instances suggests at least one of three possibilities: Honest mistakes, incompetence or favoritism.
Nearly four years ago when Lauderdale County supervisors bought the industrial park property, the city of Meridian agreed to provide water and sewer service. Months ago, Meridian received a $1.5 million federal grant which, paired with $1.6 million in city funds, would pay for the work; the federal grant expires on Friday.
Among the city's options now:
Beg for an extension of the grant and re-bid, which will result in even more delays; or,
Award the contract to one of the qualified bidders and recoup any additional costs from Engineering Associates, which committed the confusing error.
The city council is expected to vote Tuesday on which course it will take. If the city wants to be a full partner in efforts to bring higher-paying manufacturing or distribution jobs to town, if it truly wants to avoid more delays in developing the
I-20/59 Industrial Park, the mayor should recommend and the council should go ahead and award the contract.
But, many city residents are legitimately asking what's going on, why can't Meridian do public works projects without such torture.
We've suggested before that State Auditor Phil Bryant should have his agency do a performance audit on the processes by which the city of Meridian awards contracts on public works projects and manages money. The purpose would not be to place blame; it would be to identify and fix the weaknesses. While a performance audit might not solve all the problems, it certainly couldn't hurt.
Some responsible authority in city government ought to embrace the concept.