A story developed this week regarding the Port Commission, the engineering firm Stantec and County Board of Supervisor’s President, Richard George. As we dive into this story it is important to note there is an election on Tuesday and the timing of this story, by default, has to be highlighted.
The Port Commission oversees the operation of the port and the Ceres Plantation Industrial site. Over the years there have been many conversations regarding building an expansion road to access some of the undeveloped land at the Ceres location, east of the Tyson property. “We’ve looked at a road in that area all the way back to 2013” according to Brian Robbins with Stantec.
On Jan. 24, 2019, Stantec presented a design plan to the Port Commission for a road into the underdeveloped area in the eastern part of the Ceres Industrial site. That plan was for a road that included a bridge and concrete bulkheads to handle the heavy load of 18 wheelers that would, hopefully, use that road. Stantec estimated the cost of designing a permanent industrial access roadway to the roughly 200-acre site would be $424,600.
At that meeting, the county was represented by Richard George, the president of the Warren County Board of Supervisors. Mr. George, according to a column written by Mike Roach of the Port Commission, recommended that the Port Commission use Stantec’s services because of the long-term and trusted relationship Stantec enjoyed with the county, saying, according to Roach, “at some point in this business, you have to be resigned to the fact that you got to trust the people that work under you.”
Roach wrote in his column: “That was a pretty interesting moment, and I felt uneasy to have an elected official offer such a public endorsement of a contractor currently being paid through the office he represents.”
The Port Commission decided to get competitive bids for the project in spite of the board president’s recommendation. That was, according to Roach, the first time in several years the Port Commission had advertised for engineering services.
The end result was that five companies bid on the design. Stantec was not included in this bidding process and therefore did not submit a bid.
The design that was accepted ended up being for a much shorter road. The firm chosen met several qualifications the Port Commission required, and their estimate for the design came in at $29,000.
The Vicksburg Daily News reached out to Supervisor Richard George and asked him about the large difference in the bids. “Stantec was presenting a plan that included a much longer road, crossing a creek and constructing a bridge,” George said. “Obviously a much larger design is much more expensive.”
“It was Stantec who said we needed the bridge. We went the cost-effective approach,” Roach said in response. He went on to say that the commission was “led to believe we could only use Stantec as the engineer. We did some checking and discovered the Port Commission could use their own engineer.”
Using a company’s services without competitive bidding is not an uncommon or illegal practice for governmental entities; however, exclusivity makes the process opaque to the public.
Engineers are paid for their informed opinions, and it is not uncommon for engineering firms to disagree on how to best execute on a project. Any given project can expand in cost and time when a bidder, and not the entity contracting for the work, determines the project’s needs.
Without knowing every requirement, nuance and decision, it’s not easy to understand why reaching the same goal for one engineering firm costs $424,600 and another $29,000. Clearly, the scope of one design is more involved and expansive than the other; however, to date, we have yet to see an apples-to-apples comparison of the two plans, or the rationale defending each.
What we do know is the the Port Commission won’t be spending $395,600 more for a project it is satisfied $29,000 will complete. Was it the right decision? We don’t have the answer to that question. We are in the process of gathering additional information on this incident to be able to inform taxpayers of the facts, which at the moment are still cloudy.
Regardless, we urge all governmental entities in Vicksburg to engage in a competitive bidding process for any project that is not a dire emergency. Such a process provides transparency into how our leadership spends our tax dollars, and may provide substantial savings in execution.
Not all projects require competitive bids, nor are the lowest bidders always the best companies to complete the work. The competitive process, however, tends to compel all the players to remain honest brokers as the process is open to public scrutiny. And that’s a good thing.
The Vicksburg Daily News has requested information on the amount spent by Warren County with Stantec. That information was not available at the time of this column’s publication. We have also requested the details provided to Stantec for the project in question, the details provided to the five other bidders, and the scope and dollar amounts of the competing bids. The Vicksburg Daily News will publish those details once we have the information in hand.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way” – “A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, 1859
See a typo? Report it here.