County contract raises eyebrows


By NANCY COOK LAUER

Stephens Media

A county project estimated to cost $50,000 ballooned to $146,913, leaving one would-be bidder crying foul.

The project, new air-conditioning systems for Department of Environmental Management and Information Technology offices at the Puainako shopping center in Hilo, went to the sole bidder, Hawaii Sheetmetal & Mechanical Inc., whose owner, Brian Ninomoto, contributed $500 to Mayor Billy Kenoi’s campaign.

Kenoi bristled at any insinuation that campaign contributors or friends of the administration are more likely to win contracts. He said he wasn’t aware of the details of this particular contract until pointed out to him after the bid was awarded.

“There’s no connection between the contributions and contracts,” Kenoi said, adding the county has awarded more than $246 million in contracts in his first five years in office. “The best qualified bidders get contracts. Our contracts have been issued with integrity and that’s the bottom line.”

Ninomoto did not return a telephone message Thursday.

A potential bidder, Rick Fuller of Pacific Air Supply Inc., said he didn’t bid on the project because he knew his firm couldn’t do it anywhere near the $50,000 estimate provided by a consulting engineer. He said several off-island contractors who also usually bid on projects declined to bid on this one because of the low estimate.

“Being a supplier for over 25 years in the HVAC business here in Hilo, this one beats all I have ever seen,” Fuller said in an April 12 email to DPW and Kenoi’s office. “I would expect as a taxpayer the mayor, Building Department (DPW Director) Warren Lee, and whoever is driving the project could have realized this project could not be done for the $50,000 estimate. Anyone that is doing their job either does not know what they are doing, or as one contractor said … ‘Someone has a friend.’”

DPW staff said the project was put to bid twice, with no response the first time and only the one bidder the second round.

The estimate was off, according to DPW’s response to Fuller’s email, because the consulting engineer estimated the project for equipment and materials only, and inadvertently neglected to add labor costs. Consultant Engineering Projects Inc. submitted a revised cost estimate of $191,766.40 on April 19, almost a month after Hawaii Sheetmetal’s bid was accepted.

The cost estimate is not absolute, DPW spokeswoman Noelani Whittington told Stephens Media on Thursday. She said bids often come in higher or lower than the county’s estimated cost.

“It’s not considered a cap, but it’s considered a guideline,” Whittington said.

The project includes the demolition of the existing air conditioning systems and furnishing and installing new systems for the two office suites at the shopping center. The work was supposed to start March 22 and be complete by May 24, according to the contract.

Faced with a “use it or lose it” date of June 30 to commit money in the department budget or return it to the general fund, DPW staff opted to accept the sole bid.

“Other prospective bidders had reasonable opportunity to respond … and time and economic constraints preclude resolicitation of work,” Lee said in a March 21 note in the project file, citing state statutes allowing the acceptance of the sole bidder.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

 

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