Local contractors get in line for Aspen projects
December 1, 2009
ASPEN – The recession has spurred a flood of local construction companies to bid for city projects, which could potentially save the government hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The companies are successfully competing with regional, state and even national contractors for jobs exceeding $25,000, which require Aspen City Council approval.
In the past few years, the city didn’t have much luck attracting local contractors, either because they were too busy doing private jobs or the cost of doing business in the Roaring Fork Valley resulted in their bids coming in too high.
What a difference a year makes.
“As soon as the economy tanked, everyone was affected,” said Rebecca Hodgson, who handles the city’s procurement process, which includes invitations for bids, as well as requests for proposals and qualifications.
“Two years ago it was like pulling teeth to get a bid under $500,000 [from a local contractor],” she said. “Now, we get between seven and nine at once.
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“They are calling for jobs left and right.”
The city charter stipulates that first preference be given to Aspen-based companies and secondarily to those who operate in the Roaring Fork Valley. Bid amounts from local companies can be 5 percent higher than a competitor’s price, and still be in the running for the project.
“All things have to be equal,” Hodgson said about the contractors’ expertise and quality of the work. “In the past, there have been very few that have come in under that 5 percent, but things have changed.”
As a result of the slowdown in the construction industry, bids are coming in lower than ever before, and oftentimes the 5 percent locals’ preference isn’t a factor because valley companies are the lowest bidders.
“Prices are coming down,” Hodgson said. “Work has come in significantly lower than last year and what we had budgeted for.”
The locals’ preference disturbs some contractors around the state who come in with a lower price but are turned down because they are based elsewhere.
Earlier this summer, Justin Whittaker, a lead estimator for Englewood-based Glacier Construction Co. Inc., formally protested in front of the Aspen City Council after his company was turned down for a project at the Castle Creek water treatment plant.
Glacier Construction was the low bidder at $419,000. Gould Construction was the second and only other bidder, making a bid of $424,500. Gould was selected because it is based in Glenwood Springs.
“It is amazing to me that with these circumstances the city of Aspen still finds the money to hire non-low bidders for public projects,” Whittaker wrote in an e-mail to The Aspen Times in response to a story that appeared in September about layoffs in City Hall.
“With all of these layoffs and budget cuts do you find it fiscally responsible to be paying extra for anything?” he wrote.
City Council members in the past few months have been cognizant about selecting local companies, knowing that scrape-and-replace projects, as well as new construction, has slowed down significantly.
Elected officials routinely pull the contracts off the consent agenda to glean more information about why a local contractor wasn’t recommended.
In October, Mayor Mick Ireland questioned representatives from McKinstry, a national firm focused on efficiency systems. The company will act as the general contractor for a $1.4 million project that would make energy-efficient upgrades to 14 government-owned buildings.
Ireland said before the city signs a contract with McKinstry, he wanted assurance that it would use local contractors, not firms based in New Castle or farther away.
McKinstry representatives said they had difficulty finding local contractors to work during the company’s audits of the buildings.
But that is changing because local companies are looking for work now more than ever, Ireland said.