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Jim Kenyon: Bid Farewell to Fairness in Sullivan County

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Art Conkey has owned a construction business in the Mascoma Valley for 17 years, so he’s well aware that when bidding on projects, you win some, you lose some.

Conkey has also been in the game long enough to know that when he’s the low bidder — particularly on jobs involving taxpayers’ dollars — he should get the work.

But until this spring, Conkey hadn’t done business with the Sullivan County Commission. It doesn’t play by the usual rules.

And in the case of a recent construction project, the three-member commission’s unorthodox way of doing business has cost Sullivan County taxpayers nearly ten grand.

I’ll start at the beginning:

In March, the commission sought bids to improve a large public parking lot on Sunapee Street in downtown Newport. The project included paving, landscaping and the installation of lights.

Five contractors submitted bids.

At a public meeting in late April, the sealed bids were opened at the commission’s office in Newport.

Conkey was the low bidder. His company, Conkey Enterprises, came in at $147,800. United Construction, a Newport company, submitted the second-lowest bid at $157,058. A difference of $9,258.

Shortly after the bids were opened, Conkey heard from the project’s engineer, whose job it was to make sure that Conkey’s bid and references were in order.

Conkey had already provided the county with the necessary “bonding” information to show he had sufficient insurance to cover the cost of the job, if for some reason he didn’t complete the work.

With nine employees, Conkey Enterprises is on the small side (United Construction has 50 workers), but it’s still an established player in the site improvement business. Last year, Conkey performed the site work for the new BJ’s Wholesale Club gas station on Route 12A in West Lebanon — a nearly $600,000 project. Currently, he’s overseeing a housing demolition project for the city of Lebanon.

Conkey, who lives in Canaan, is able to compete with bigger companies partly because he owns a 70-acre sand and gravel pit off Bog Road in Enfield. For jobs such as the Newport parking lot, “we can supply our own gravel,” he said. “We don’t have to buy it from someplace else. We don’t have that added cost.”

At a May 8 county commission meeting, the engineer reported that he had checked references for Conkey Enterprises and United Construction and “received positive feedback on both.”

Conkey and Cary Whipple, vice president of United Construction, both figured the commission’s vote would be a mere formality. “Typically, if a responsible contractor has the low bid, he gets the job,” Whipple told me last week.

But in this case, it didn’t work that way.

According to the meeting’s minutes, Chairman Jeff Barrette stated that since the top two bids were within 10 percent of each other, “he would prefer to keep the business in-county.” And since his business was located in neighboring Grafton County that didn’t bode well for Conkey.

United was “clearly my choice,” Barrette told me last week.

Except he didn’t vote. “Noting United is a client of his,” Barrette abstained, according to the meeting’s minutes.

Barrette is general manager of Ink Factory Clothing, a Claremont company that sells custom-made T-shirts. United Construction buys its employees’ work shirts from Ink Factory.

Although Barrette, who has been a county commissioner for 11 years, didn’t cast a vote, he certainly made his preference known before fellow commissioners George Hebert and Bennie Nelson cast theirs.

Hebert and Nelson awarded the contract to United. Low bidder be damned.

After learning by email that he hadn’t gotten the job, Conkey cried foul. As well, he should.

Sullivan County Manager Jessie Levine, who has since retired due to illness, informed Conkey via email that with the bids being so close, the commission favored United Construction because they “operate locally and are a Sullivan County taxpayer.”

She cited a county policy that gives commissioners the right to award a contract to someone who isn’t the lowest bidder. The policy doesn’t mention anything about giving preference to Sullivan County bidders, but I guess commissioners figure it still gives them cover to steer contracts to favored companies.

I chatted with Barrette before a commission meeting last week. The policy “gives us some flexibility,” he said, adding that he was concerned about “keeping dollars in the county.”

United Construction, which is family owned, has been in business in Newport since 1960. “Let’s face it, we all know each other,” Barrette said.

I’m sure United will do a good job. The company has a fine reputation.

But the commission has undermined the bidding process. Knowing the deck is stacked against them, who could blame companies from outside Sullivan for not going to all the work of bidding on future projects?

That could lead to less competition — and less incentive for Sullivan businesses to give the county their best price.

Then there’s the matter of Sullivan County taxpayers. If their elected commissioners aren’t looking out for their financial interests, who is?

Out of curiosity, I checked into Grafton County’s bidding policy. Low bids are not automatically accepted, but there must be a good reason to go with someone else, County Administrator Julie Libby said. For instance, if the low bidder’s references don’t check out.

Do Grafton County bidder’s get preference?

“I’ve never seen us use that as a qualifying reason,” said Libby, who has run the county’s day-to-day operations since 2002.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation also doesn’t favor in-state bidders over out-of-state competitors, said spokesman Bill Boynton.

Conkey told me that he put a lot of time and money into his bid. All for naught. “I had good references, I had my bond, and I was the low bid. What more can I do?”

If he doesn’t want to move, maybe he could order some T-shirts.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.