Builders say school construction bill favors some firms

Posted: Monday, April 17, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Some builders, architects and designers are scrambling to erect a barrier in front of a bill they say was custom built to steer the state's rural school construction projects to one or two companies.

House Bill 445, which surfaced in the Finance Committee last week, would award all rural school construction projects to developers who meet what critics say is a restrictive list of qualifications.

Bidders would have to have experience in: ''being a turnkey developer; completing projects in rural Alaska; development of schools; financial matters; facility management and maintenance.''

Though it's called a pilot program, the measure would cover all rural school construction projects for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The latest bond bill being considered by the Legislature holds nearly $100 million in rural school projects, said Finance Committee co-chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage.

Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, criticized the measure as ''trying to sole-source the biggest school construction year in the last eight years.''

But Mulder and other backers say it's not a special deal for anyone. They say the bill would save the state money by consolidating work.

But an assortment of architects, builders and others argue the bill's strict criteria would push out most firms.

''It appears as though only one or two companies would have the full range of requirements that the bill specifies,'' said Sam Kito III of the Alaska Professional Design Council, a trade association.

''It's too restrictive and does not lend itself to open competitive bidding practices,'' said R.D. ''Monty'' Montgomery, assistant executive director with the Associated General Contractors of Alaska.

''As written, it limits the amount of contractors who would qualify to bid on rural school construction projects,'' he said in a letter to lawmakers.

Architect Mark Pfeffer, whose firm and lobbyist were involved in the creation of the bill and would stand to benefit under the measure, denies it is a sweetheart deal and says other firms could join to bid on the projects.

''I don't see it as a special interest thing at all,'' Pfeffer told the Anchorage Daily News in a telephone interview Sunday. ''I see it as the state trying to do a better job'' at managing these projects.

People who oppose the measure ''probably want to participate but haven't figured out how to do it,'' Pfeffer said. ''I think there are any number of contractors that would participate.''

The bill was designed to consolidate the disjointed way construction projects are handled, Mulder said. Ideally, one developer would oversee the whole project, making all the companies involved work more efficiently, he said.

''The focus is to build more buildings with the same amount of money,'' he said.

Still, Mulder pulled the bill from the House floor Saturday. Groups concerned with the bill will have a chance early this week to ''come up with compromise language,'' Mulder said. But if they fail, the bill will go forward, he said.

Croft characterized it as the kind of bad-policy legislation that sometimes slips through in the end-of-session rush.

It was sponsored by the House Finance Committee, referred to House Finance and sent to the floor in the waning days of the session, Croft said, adding, ''Those are the hallmarks of a fix.''

Colin Maynard, a structural engineer who is on the board of the Alaska Professional Design Council, said the bill moved too quickly to be adequately scrutinized.

''We didn't even have a chance at a hearing,'' he said.

Kito of the design council and others say they'd the bill killed so they can take more time in the interim to craft a fair measure.

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