Contractors angry at city's new public works policy

Several builders are hammering a new Carson City contracting method they claim was created behind closed doors to the benefit of one contractor.

Carson City is trying out a new form of public works construction: hiring a construction manager instead of a low-bid general contractor.

While some contractors agree with the concept, they say the process to install it in Carson City lacked the open forum that should have preceded such a drastic policy change. They also say it doesn't offer a level playing field for all local contractors.

"When something changes as far as the way city government operates, there should be input," said contractor John Anderson. "This was done backwards. A procedure was put together after a selection was made, which doesn't lend a lot of credibility to the selection."

City Engineer Larry Werner argues the new policy is a good way to manage construction projects, and he opted to try construction management with the $3 million Senior Center remodel and expansion project.

"It's used routinely across the country," he said. "It's just unique to us right here, right now."

Typically, the city hires an architect to design a project and then hires a general contractor to oversee and build it.

Under the construction management concept, the manager works with the architect. As parts of the project are designed and ready for construction - plumbing, for example - that work is bid by subcontractors.

"From all appearances, what they're calling a construction manager is a general contractor," said Robert Greth, of Greth Construction.

City officials had major conflicts with the contractor of the new Aquatic Facility, American General Development. That experience, and other problems with the general contractor building theory, prompted them to look at ways to save money on construction.

Tom Metcalf, of Metcalf Builders, helped city staff members define the construction manager position and was then offered the Senior Center job. Because the contract falls under "professional services," the city isn't required to put the contract to public bid. However, other builders protested the contract in June and city officials went through a process to find a qualified manager - again settling on Metcalf Builders.

General contractors are held liable for construction problems. However, under construction management, each trade contractor - from a plumber to an electrician - contracts directly with the city and is liable for the quality of the work.

Dealing with several small contracts instead of one is a drawback to the system, Werner said. However, he said more money is available for actual construction by not having a general contractor.

Carson City used a construction manager to build the Public Safety Complex, but also hired a general contractor. The Carson City School District is using Q&D Construction for construction management in its $18 million bond projects at several schools.

Mike Mitchell, school district operations chief, said there is little difference between a construction manager and a general contractor, except construction managers work for the owner, not themselves.

"A construction manager can help the architect through how to do things in a safe and timely manner. You don't get that input from a general contractor until it's too late," Mitchell said.

Anderson, a former school board member, said the school district was open with its process to choose a construction manager when school officials embraced the idea in 1996.

"The Carson City procedure is one put together in a closed environment," Anderson said. "There was no intent to bring others in. Why would they not want to do it in an open forum unless there was another agenda?"

Bill Ramsden, of Central Sierra Construction, said he has years of experience as a contractor for Carson City and wasn't chosen for an interview.

"There's not a black mark on my record," he said. "I'm not a sore loser. I lose all the time. If it's on the table, fine. It was biased and unfair to other qualified and capable contractors.

"In order to get rid of an undesirable contractor, they came up with this other system. I don't think they should run a job without a general contractor."

Greth said the city offered no reason why Metcalf was a better choice.

"They interviewed a few contractors, but how they came up with it was open to no one," he said. "How they decided they would pick one over another, I don't know. There are no written policies or procedures. What is their intent? Nobody knows."

Werner said Metcalf Builders was selected by a seven-member panel and demonstrated during the interview process they understood the construction management process.

"I don't think any others were not qualified to do the work," Werner said. "In the presentation, some did better than others."

Metcalf Builders was also selected to repair the Aquatic Facility, a fact some contractors believe was no coincidence.

"The contractor selection process is somewhat reminiscent of Chicago in the 1930s, breeding potential graft and corruption, as if history were repeating itself," according to Greth. "The contractors in Nevada are only requesting a fair and level playing field in which all the same rules and procedures apply to everyone.

Metcalf said the city asked him to repair the pool, but he approached city officials with the idea of construction management.

"It's my job to introduce myself to clients," Metcalf said. "This was a timing issue. They said, 'We need help now.'"

Werner said, in hindsight, he would have gone through a selection process, but didn't realize there was interest from the rest of the building community.

Because the Senior Center plans were being drawn, the city needed Metcalf's services immediately. In the future, projects to be built using construction management will go through the same proposal process, he said.


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