Debate ensues over consultant hiring

Two Sussex council members object to one-firm contract
November 1, 2013

It took three meetings and a contentious discussion, but Sussex County Council hired a consultant for a five-year contract to provide engineering services for its north coastal sewer planning area.

At its Oct. 29 meeting, council voted 3-2 to hire Whitman, Requardt and Associates, a company that has provided professional services to the county since 1995.

Councilmen Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, and Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, voted against staff's recommendation. It was Phillips who pushed to delay a vote at council's Oct. 15 and Oct. 22 meetings saying he had questions about the process.

Phillips said it was his impression that the county had a policy to spread out contracts to several engineering firms. He provided a list to council showing that Whitman, Requardt and Associates had received more than $8.8 million in engineering consultant fees over the past five years. The top two other firms, George, Miles and Buhr and Urban Engineers, have received an average of $1.15 million each over the same time period. Money paid out to nine other engineering firms over the past five years totals about $6.4 million.

Seven firms responded to the county's request for proposals; three companies were put on a short list and ranked, said Joe Wright, assistant county engineer.

In the top spot was Whitman, Requardt and Associates, with offices in Georgetown and Wilmington, Wright said, noting the firm has been involved with the construction of 35 pump stations, two plant expansions and the laying of more than 600,000 feet of pipe.

A committee of county staff selected the winning proposal. Because the proposal is for professional services billed on projects yet to come, a specific cost of the five-year contract is not known. Engineers typically charge 15 percent for their services of a total project's cost, said county engineer Mike Izzo.

Wright said the county could spend less over the next five years than the amount spent over the previous five years. “It could be $1 million a year or more or it could be $100,000,” Wright said, adding costs depend solely on how much work is done in the north coastal sewer planning area.

The above average influx of federal funds for sewer projects experienced over the past few years will not continue over the next contract period. The county has spent more than $15 million on engineering consultants from 2009 to 2013.

“I'm concerned we are giving too much to one firm,” Phillips said. “There are other quality firms that would use work. We have way too many eggs in one basket.”

Phillips and Wilson said they were concerned about competition and getting the best costs for the county.

Over objections from staff, Phillips made a motion to split up the contract among the top three bidders. That motion was defeated 3-2.

Selection committee member Heather Sheridan, director of the county's environmental services, told council the process was fair and the selection was unanimous. “It's in the best interest of the county to hire Whitman, Requardt and Associates because we have worked with them since 1995,” she said.

“You have a cozy relationship with this firm, and that's not in the best interest of the county,” Phillips said.

“I object to that,” Sheridan said. “It's a very professional relationship.”

“It's that time of the year because this sounds like a witch hunt to me,” said Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View. “There is a track record of success here; I have faith in our staff.”

Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, and Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, and Cole voted in favor of staff's recommendation.

After the meeting, Phillips described what he meant by being cozy. “It's lack of competition cozy. When you look at the huge disparity among consultants, what other conclusion can be reached?” he asked.


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