Jeff Curren of HDR Consulting addresses the commissioners court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Progress on Hays County’s remaining road bond projects encountered a hitch last week after a consulting firm proposed companies for hire without specifying the process by which it selected them.
The Request for Qualifications (RFQ) document to which at least 86 firms responded specifies seven criteria by which Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) was hoping to judge HDR Engineering’s top recommendations for road bond projects.
“Frankly, it makes it difficult for this court and does a disservice to those who responded to our RFQ,” Ford said.
Consequently, the Hays County Commissioners Court tasked HDR with documenting its selection methods for a short list it compiled from among 57 respondent firms. A committee composed of Ford, Hays County Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe and Hays County Auditor Bill Herzog was to review HDR’s results. Firms making the cut will be eligible for any county work, not only the lucrative road bond project contracts. The list might be updated every four years.
“I feel like we’re just right back at the very beginning of this process,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos). “We’ve been waiting for weeks to try to come up with a list so we can get the projects going.”
In the interests of saving time on all future road-related projects, and because many more firms than expected responded to the county’s RFQ, the commissioners court months ago elected to give the priority road bond project manager firm — HDR — the job of compiling a list of pre-certified companies.
Firms responding to the RFQ had the opportunity to request pre-certification in 11 work categories, including geotechnical, bridge and structural engineering, hydrology and drainage, and the coveted general civil engineering and roadway design. A company that wins the lucrative general civil engineering contract is elevated to project manager status, with authority over engineers from the other firms associated with the particular project. Among the 86 firms that responded to the RFQ, more applied to be pre-certified in the prime firm category than any other. HDR applied to be pre-certified for seven categories.
The county has not yet been billed by HDR for consulting work, which, Ford, said costs $150 per man-hour. Ford suggested embarking on a new process to pre-select firms, which would involve a committee composed of engineers and others well-briefed in county purchasing policies, and which, she said, might cost the county $75 per man-hour.
Ford noted that HDR was among those firms that made the short list for general civil engineering. Hays County policy prohibits HDR from taking on additional work related to the priority road bond RFQ. The county is contractually bound to pay no more than $1.8 million to HDR for the latter’s work as project manager of the priority road bond projects.
HDR Project Manager Jeff Curren, who presented the firm’s findings to the commissioners court, offered to have his company removed from the proposed short-list of pre-certified firms.
Said Curren, “If you have a committee to review each proposal in 11 different categories, with many firms submitting in multiple categories…what we did is we said, ‘If we had 86 proposals, and each person spent a couple hours reading each proposal, making notes, filling out score sheets, and gathering up scores and listing them for commissioners, and we had a three-person committee doing that, that was about three man months, or person months…worth of work.”
HDR separated firms into an A group and a B group for each category. The A groups were those firms deemed highly-qualified and the B groups represented the mediocre firms.
Hays County Director of Resource Protection, Transportation and Planning Jerry Borcherding said there were 36 firms in the general civil engineering A group, which included HDR. Borcherding said HDR “made it very clear” that it didn’t want to be involved in reviewing its own submittal. Borcherding said he added HDR to the general civil engineering A group after he compared it to the other respondents.
“(The list) seemed random, it seemed subjective, it seemed — basically, not fair to those who took the time to respond,” Ford said.
HDR recommended the county pre-certify all 86 firms in all categories. Ford opposed pre-certifying all 86 firms, saying she was uncomfortable with “letting all come in equally” despite scoring criteria being specified in the RFQ.
Said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter, “I am comfortable with qualifying all 86, putting them on your list, and going to the second phase, which is turning around and now saying…’how do we pick from that pool that (has) qualified?’ Because they’re all qualified.”
The process by which the county hires professional services firms varies. Some sole source providers render choosing from among multiple RFQ or Request for Proposal (RFP) respondents unnecessary. In other instances, a firm is recommended by county staff or a member of the commissioners court as the best company for the job. Sometimes the court appoints a committee to choose among a few RFQ or RFP respondents. State law prohibits counties and municipalities from taking into account cost when seeking professional services.
“We really are trying to make (the process) as transparent and as fair as possible,” said Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle). “I think our consultants are trying that as well, but they are making compromises to save money and expedite things, and what we said was, ‘Okay, but go back to the drawing board and come back with a little more detail … Flesh out a little bit of your reasoning behind who is scoring well and who is not. Quantify that, or at least qualify that a little bit for us, and then bring it back and see if we are ready to reach some consensus on the firms.'”
Barton said he still intends to propose a revised version of the Ethics Begins at Home policy he presented to the court on April 14. The last official iteration of the policy would prohibit the county from doing business with companies involved in convictions for felonies or crimes “of moral turpitude” within the last five years.
The restrictions would apply to any company, its parent company, its subsidiaries, certain of its subcontractors, and “key personnel.” The policy would not apply to all companies doing business with the county, as state law requires counties and municipalities to hire the lowest responsible bidder for non-professional services contracts worth more than $25,000.
“I think there are some state politicians who may be skeptical of the initiative because they don’t want to see that idea catch hold,” Barton said. “They’ve expressed that to me. (With) a sense of collegiality, for the time being, I’ll just leave those people nameless. They’re not local folks. People out of Austin did express some concern. But I think it will work out well. I think it will be a trail-blazing policy.”
Barton may propose the next iteration of the Ethics Begins at Home policy next week.
Regarding the proposed ethics policy, said Barton: “Most of the feedback I’ve gotten, particularly from local residents and small business people, local taxpayers, is that they’re glad to see us moving in that direction. Obviously, some of the firms that worry that they might not be able to come into compliance — or some of their allies around the state — are concerned or skeptical about the policy. But, you know, that’s not my problem. I don’t represent those folks.”Email | Print