St. Louis County denies bid protest on jail project
Marshall Helmberger

REGIONAL—St. Louis County has denied a bid protest filed by a Wisconsin-based firm over a questionable bidding process for new detention cells at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center near Saginaw. The company, WDSI, Inc., which specializes in the installation of jail cells, submitted the low bid on the project, but county purchasing officials disqualified the bid and accepted the only other remaining bid, from Pauly Jail, which was $173,000 higher.

In an April 10 letter signed by Deputy County Administrator Gary Eckenberg, the county denies that it violated its rules or state law in throwing out WDSI’s bid and awarding the project to Indiana-based Pauly Jail.

In the protest letter submitted by WDSI two weeks ago, the company complained that St. Louis County and the Arrowhead Regional Corrections, which oversees the NERCC, had essentially sole-sourced the supplier for jail cells, all but eliminating competitive bidding.

In their response, county officials acknowledge that the specifications used in the bid process were based on specifications for a single supplier, Georgia-based Steel Cell of North America, but they argue that the bidding process did allow for other manufacturers to become qualified, and that companies that wished to do so did have sufficient time to go through the process.

But WDSI principal Andrea Ward argues that by selecting one manufacturer’s specifications, the bidding process gave that company and its preferred contractor, Pauly Jail, the inside track in the bidding process. While other companies were required to go through a lengthy qualification process, Steel Cell of North America was automatically “qualified” by the project’s architect without submission of any documentation.

No alternative manufacturers opted to go through the process. Several other manufacturers contacted by the Timberjay said they believed it was not worth the time and resources to obtain qualification because they felt the decision had already been made to use Steel Cell.

Jay Seavy, a principal with Maximum Security Systems, a rival manufacturer of jail cells, who has worked in the industry for decades, agreed with the other manufacturers contacted by the Timberjay. “Everyone in this industry knew who was getting the job,” said Seavy. “When these projects get set up this way, there’s only one way the bid can come out.”

In its bid, WDSI indicated it planned to work with Chief Industries as the supplier of pre-manufactured cells. County officials, in their response, said it appeared that Chief Industries “had the capability to meet the technical specifications for the steel cells.” Chief Industries is a long-established steel product manufacturer, but it is a relatively new entrant in the manufacture of steel detention cells, and the company indicated it could not meet the ten-year experience requirement of the county’s bidding specification. Because Chief Industries did not go through the qualification process, WDSI’s bid was thrown out, according to the county response.

The county also dismissed WDSI’s complaint that it had awarded the bid to Pauly Jail despite the fact that the company failed to attend a mandatory pre-bid meeting. In the county response, Eckenberg argued that Pauly Jail had set an alternative date for a pre-bid meeting, with prior approval, and that disqualifying the company over the missed meeting did not serve the public interest.

“The purpose of putting projects out for bid is to allow for the greatest number of qualified bidders to compete for the contract, and thereby increasing the odds that the government entity will receive the highest quality product at the lowest price. Narrowly reading arbitrary specifications to limit participation of bidders would not serve the public good,” wrote Eckenberg.

WDSI’s Ward said she agrees with the objective of expanding the number of bidders, but noted that the county’s process limited bids for detention cells to one.

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