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    Local Columns
    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    OPINION: New London spent millions on sidewalks without regular competitive bidding

    I’ve always thought of competitive bidding as the bulwark of honest government, proof that states, cities and towns are getting the best price and that contracts aren’t being given unethically to insiders.

    Indeed, competitive bidding, with public advertisement and competition, is required by New London city ordinance for any public works projects costing more than $20,000.

    And so I was a little shocked to learn that New London, as part of a long campaign to eventually replace all of its sidewalks, has been ordering new work every year, sometimes for more than $1 million, from the same contractor, without putting the new work out to bid.

    The city’s sidewalk contractor for the last 10 years has been Colonna Concrete Asphalt Paving of Woodbridge.

    New London Mayor Michael Passero, who brought Public Works Director Brian Sear to a meeting to talk about the sidewalks, told me there is nothing corrupt about the project and that Colonna has saved the city millions of dollars over the years.

    My instinct is that the mayor is correct and there is no corruption in the lack of bidding for each new annual project. I suspect he and the public works director may be right, that Colonna’s prices were low and a good deal.

    I’m sure it was easy to just assign them new streets and sidewalks each year and have them keep going.

    The problem, it seems to me, is that there is no proof that there is no corruption, since the city has deliberately chosen not to advertise the new work in new bidding every year and see if someone else might offer to do it for less.

    The lack of annual bidding for new work on city sidewalks is also troubling in light of an ongoing criminal investigation into no-bid work on schools around the state.

    Also, it’s a lot of money.

    The legal justification for not putting new sidewalk repair work out to bid every year is that the city was simply signing addendums each year to the original contract, extensions that would keep in place the general pricing structure, which is based on variables like square footage.

    The mayor and public works director said the next round of work will be put out to bid, because Colonna said it will no longer hold its price.

    Passero and Sears told me the principal pricing unit offered by Colonna has been $8.25 a square foot of installed concrete, compared to $12 to $16 for that kind of work estimated by the state.

    Both Passero and Sears said they believe Colonna would have raised its original prices if new bidding was required in subsequent years. But of course they don’t know, because they didn’t put it out to bid.

    It’s also not clear why, if Colonna was able to make a profit at those prices, why someone else wouldn’t try.

    Passero said Law Director Jeffrey Londregan made a legal determination that the city, despite the ordinance requiring competitive bidding for public works projects, could continue to extend Colonna’s contract annually with addendums.

    I’m no lawyer, but it seems very strange to me that one bid, for work on one particular set of roads, with very precise specifications and timeline, could legally give a contractor carte blanche for 10 years of work in different places and circumstances. Each year is a new project with a new set of streets.

    The city records presented to me were also not clear. The law director told me three years of addendums the City Council would have been asked to approve are missing. Addendums in later years didn’t include a list of streets, just an amount of money.

    Also, no one could explain to me why the original bid I was shown, with Colonna as the low bidder, was dated 2014 when the contract the city keeps making addendums to is dated in 2013.

    You would think they would want to get that straight, since that is the legal justification for more than $10 million in work over 10 years .

    Mayor Passero is very proud of the city’s sidewalk replacement program, which he said is improving property values in many neighborhoods and a welcome improvement by taxpayers.

    I would question whether a poor city that struggles to make choices in what education it can provide its young people can afford or even needs to replace all of its sidewalks.

    But I have to defer to the popular mayor on that one, since he seems to know what his constituents want.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.

    d.collins@theday.com

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