Miami Beach

Miami Beach skips public bids to move fast on sea rise projects

Construction workers raise the height of the street and sidewalks in front of the Publix at 1920 West Ave. in Miami Beach.
Construction workers raise the height of the street and sidewalks in front of the Publix at 1920 West Ave. in Miami Beach.

While Miami Beach leads the region in building resiliency to rising tides, the effort to fast-track the massive project also has wound up doing an end-run around the normal process for issuing government contracts.

The Miami Beach Commission has waived the public process of seeking low bids in two projects, approving expensive changes under emergency authority. Some critics wonder if the rush to get things done has cost taxpayers.

At a September commission meeting where a new round of Sunset Harbour work was discussed, lobbyist Eric Zichella criticized the use of emergency declarations.

“This is something that is completely different that what you originally solicited bids for,” said Zichella, who represents a number of clients interested in bidding for the work. He said it was unfair to give Deerfield Beach-based Lanzo Construction the extension without a public bid.

He later told the Miami Herald he appreciates the mayor and commission’s efforts to get the work done quickly, but he made a case for why the city should follow the typical process for awarding contracts.

“It’s well-established public policy that the public and the rate-payers deserve to have a public bidding process that gives them the best price for all of the work that will be constructed,” he said. “You never know if you’re getting ripped off unless you go out for public bids.”

Some commissioners also have questioned the fast approach along the way but it hasn’t drawn much public backlash. Some residents said they don’t mind the no-bid work as long as it means construction will be over sooner.

“If the price is right, I don’t see why we have to go looking somewhere else,” said Sunset Harbour resident Marilyn Freundlich.

Read more about Miami Beach’s efforts to develop engineering solutions for sea rise

The work in Sunset Harbour started as a $2 million, publicly-bid project approved in May 2013 by the previous City Commission. The contract went to Lanzo Construction to replace an existing pump station at 20th Street and West Avenue, add more injection wells and build a new gravity storm sewer system.

In September 2014, the public works department asked Mayor Philip Levine and the commission to approve a $4 million expansion without a public bid, adding the current pump system and raised roads. Officials said Sunset Harbour’s flood-prone streets were in a state of emergency and the city needed to keep the contractor working on-site. The change was approved.

In September of this year, when there was another proposed extension to keep the contractor working in the area to continue raising roads and replacing an old water main, commissioners pushed for more negotiations to reduce the price. On Sept. 30, commissioners approved the extension, without a bid, for $6.4 million.

The cost of the pumps on West Avenue has also gone up during the course of construction.

An $11.25 million contract with Bergeron Land Development was approved in February 2014 to build new storm water pump stations at 6th, 10th and 14th streets. The city declared an emergency, waived bidding and chose Bergeron, which was already working one street over on drainage improvements to Alton Road for the Florida Department of Transportation.

That contract has since grown to about $31 million because of unexpected problems. The city also decided to fold in streetscape work planned for a future project to give a neighborhood weary from construction a break.

Eric Carpenter, Miami Beach’s public works director, said with experience under the city’s belt, the process of estimating costs and issuing contracts should improve.

“The public procurement process is a challenging process for all parties involved, and there’s no silver bullet for the procurement process,” he said. “We’re trying to get away from the emergency procurement now that we’ve had the time to test the waters on some of these projects.”

Lanzo and Bergeron have both been active politically in the Beach. Each contributed to a controversial political action committee this past summer called Relentless for Progress (RFP), which was chaired by Commissioner Jonah Wolfson. Levine helped Woflson solicit donations.

Lanzo contributed $25,000 in May. Bergeron gave $12,500 in June.

After a well-publicized debate about whether a PAC funded by vendors, developers and lobbyists should be active in the local city election, Wolfson decided to close RFP and return remaining funds in proportion to their donation.

According to the committee’s final financial report, Lanzo got $8,473.10 back. Bergeron received $4,236.55.

Related stories from Miami Herald