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Public Works Projects: Start Your Bidding

To bid or not to bid? That is the question. And it’s one more and more contractors have been asking themselves lately, especially as public works departments are increasingly incorporating decorative concrete into municipal plans. But where does one begin? What’s the best approach, and is it the ideal option for everyone? Knowing the rules and the players will help contractors determine if a particular public works project is the right fit.

The City of Virginia Beach, Va., is just one of a number of municipalities that have given decorative concrete facelifts to public areas. At Virginia Beach, a recently installed storm-protection seawall serves a functional purpose and looks attractive while doing so. According to Phill Roehrs, a coastal engineer and head of the city public works department’s Surface Water Resource Division, the wall was constructed as part of a federal project, and the city and the Corps of Engineers set aside a percentage of the funding for aesthetic enhancements, including concrete relief, decorative light poles and color schemes. In this case, the artwork was generated and included in the contract, and the successful bidder secured the services of a concrete art molder.

Keeping abreast of such projects is as easy as logging onto a computer, Roehrs notes. Like any other public works project in Virginia Beach, the seawall job was listed on the city’s Web site, VBgov.com. There, contractors will also find information on all of the projects that are part of the city’s six-year Capital Improvement Program, which is updated annually via a public budget process. Construction contracts are advertised via the local paper and trade listings from the Associated General Contractors of America, McGraw-Hill Construction Dodge Reports and elsewhere. Meanwhile, studies and designs are distributed through a Request For Proposal process, in which consultants interested in doing work for the city register and receive all RFPs as a result. Even the city’s purchasing department maintains a form of notification listing similar to the RFP process, Roehrs adds.

Roehrs says that the process by which contractors learn about projects, bid on them, and win the jobs is common. “It’s a standard process of sealed bids, sometimes with a prequalification process, all in accordance with the Virginia state procurement code. Basically, track the trade listings or postings by our purchasing department, pull a set of the bid documents for items of interest to the contractor, and follow the bidding instructions.”

Contractors in Los Angeles County also don’t have to look very hard to find potential public works projects. The County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works even maintains a business services Web site (at dpw.lacounty.gov/PRG/business/index.cfm). While some of the tips may seem like obvious steps to take — such as reading and filling out all RFPs in their entirety and signing the forms — failing to execute these steps is one of the main reasons contractors are eliminated from the bidding process.

This problem is prevalent, in part, because so many newcomers are entering the public arena, says Gary H. Bozé, a public information officer for the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works. “One major problem for contractors is that a lot of them have done private work and then try to switch over, and it’s drastically different. It isn’t an easy transition. There’s more strict oversight and inspection. There’s a much more structured environment. There’s more documentation, much of which is required by law. And it takes a while to get established.”

What’s more, putting together a bid is not easy, Bozé says. “It takes time to review, prepare and submit. And you’re not just bidding on one project. You are doing multiple and playing your cards all the time. If you’re a small business, the challenge is juggling 20 different things.”

And then there’s the low-bid scenario. “You’re not going to get work just because you have a resume of satisfied customers,” Bozé warns. A bid should reflect the cost for the company to construct the project in accordance with the bid documents, plus any overhead and profit. But not everyone bids correctly. If a bid is too low, the agency will question the bid, Bozé says, trying to figure out if the contractor is cutting corners or forgetting something. Ultimately, the contractor may lose out on the job because of an inaccurate low bid. That said, contractors who inadvertently submit an unrealistically low bid are allowed by law to pull the bid without any repercussions.

So what does a contractor need to do to start profiting from the public sector? First, the law requires all contractors to be bonded. “It’s one of the biggest hurdles,” Bozé notes.

This bond is a pledge that a contractor will perform as promised and pay bills and payroll on time. The key here, Bozé stresses, is to keep up a good track record and have good cash flow because the better track record you have, the better bond premium you get.

Once bonded, purchase bid documents early, Bozé says. Having a copy of the bid documents is particularly crucial when there is an amendment because those who have purchased them and who have placed bids will be notified of any changes, he adds. “Even if you are a subcontractor you should know about projects and place bids. Purchase your own bid documents.”

Vince Vasconi of AJ Vasconi General Engineering in Concord, Calif., is all too familiar with the bidding process and what it takes to be properly bonded. He’s based his last 11 years of business on public works projects. From its inception, AJ Vasconi General Engineering has performed 98 percent of its jobs in the public category, from bridges and retaining walls to a growing niche: skateboard parks. “When (my son Andy and I) first started the business 11 years ago, we immediately felt the competitive nature of public works was conducive to what we wanted to do,” Vasconi says. “It’s competitive but solid because if you’re the lowest bidder, you’re probably going to get the job. In the private sector, they don’t have to pick the lowest bidder ... it might be the guy you play golf with.”

The most common way to land a public works project may be to submit a bid, but once in a while, a contractor is selected simply on the basis of his or her good work. Shellie Rigsby of Acanthus in the Dallas area was selected as a subcontractor on a few public works projects because the prime contractor who won the bid was familiar with Acanthus’s work and approached the company based on its reputation.

Ray Robinson of Robinson Earthscaping in Deadwood, Ore., has also been lucky enough to land a few public works projects simply by virtue of his resume, which includes landscaping the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Ore., working with Larson Themed Construction on Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, and working on the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon, in addition to multiple private and residential jobs.

In one instance, the city of Eugene, Ore., Parks and Open Space department contacted Robinson and asked him to create four artistic works as part of a playground project known as RiverPlay. One included miniaturized climbing columns. Another was a 50-foot streambed complete with waterfalls that children can dam using sand. For a project in the city’s Willakenzie Park, he created a sandbox complete with a fruit and vegetable theme. As far as Robinson knows, he’s the only one in the state creating such projects, a main reason why he was handpicked for the job and paid by the hour.

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