Niagara College excludes companies which have built the college from pre-qualification list for five major capital projects
GTA Construction Report staff writer
Niagara-area contractors are fuming over the Niagara College’s decision to exclude local contractors from a list of 15 pre-qualified bidders for five major capital projects in the next few years, estimated to provide more than $16 million in work.
The college received 43 responses for its pre-qualification invitation, including four from local contractors, several which have successfully completed significant earlier projects at the college.
Unfortunately, the college says, all of the local contractors scored below the cut-off in the points ranking system based on company information, project approach and methodology, team experience and qualifications, a written statement and a fee proposal.
“As a publicly-funded institution, Niagara College is required to comply with provincial procurement legislation,” the college said in a statement. “These laws are very clear on the issue of favouring companies based on whether or not they are local: it is prohibited. For Niagara College, or any other publicly funded institution in Ontario to give preference to local bidders in a pre-qualification or a tendering process would be against the law and would bring significant consequences for the college.
“This process complied with all of the principles, laws and directives that govern public purchasing in Ontario and, as such, was not designed to favour or exclude local companies in any way.”
However, Niagara Construction Association (NCA) president Tyler Green says members are puzzled how the local contractors could not have scored well, considering their practical and successful (and recent) experience working on similar college projects, which were all competitively bid.
“Two of these contractors have spent 25 years building that facility (the college),” Green said. “The decision that they aren’t qualified to bid on the facility they just built, it doesn’t make sense, unless there were major problems or litigations, or the work wasn’t done properly.”
The local contractors who sought to be included on the pre-qualification list and were excluded included Bromac Construction, TR Hinan Contractors, Merit Contractors Niagara and Brouwer Construction. All have solid local reputations and have the capacity and experience to work on projects in the estimated price range, Green said.
He said the NCA members certainly can understand the qualification process and need for fairness, but cannot see how excluding local contractors from the process makes sense.
“The provincial procurement policies used in the pre-qualification process can discriminate against small to medium sized firms whom are just as qualified to do these types of jobs,” the NCA said in a statement. “We would note that Niagara-based contractors are in a better position to react to project concerns and deficiency issues without delay and have a proven track record of doing the same. Should this not be heavily weighted in selection of the ‘best suited’ contractor, as the pre-qualification claims the process is meant to identify?
“We are not asking for the work to be handed to Niagara general or subcontractors, just fair and honest opportunity to bid the work and provide the value we have based our businesses and reputation on for years,” the NCA statement said. “This association believes that the general contractors omitted from the pre-qualification list are ‘best suited’ to provide Niagara College with the experience, value and integrity they expect from their pre-qualification list.”
Green said since the NCA issued the statement, the association has been lobbying and seeking guidance on how to encourage the college to revise its policies, but so far the institution is standing firm, with officials asserting they would be under legal liability if they changed their decision.
The college says local contractors can continue to bid on other projects not included in the pre-qualification process, but Tyler said these are generally tiny jobs that won’t make much difference.
He says the NCA has received guidance that the college can “abandon this process at any time without repercussions.”
“They (the college administrators) don’t seem to want to do that – it doesn’t seem to be on their mind,” Green said. “Their statement that if something else comes up, we’ll keep you in mind, doesn’t put us at ease at all.”
“There are grey areas and flexibility within that (pre-qualification) procedure,” he said. “If a company has been working five to 20 years with the college, working on issues, how could they be doing that work successfully for 20 years and today they are not qualified to do that work.
“If that is the result of the policy then the policy needs to to be amended or reworked so these things don’t happen.”
Green says the four contractors have asked for debriefings to see where they failed to earn enough points to qualify, but these haven’t been completed yet.
The projects covered by the pre-qualification process include a $9 million athletic facility and $9 million culinary building expansion (both at the Niagara-at-the-Lake campus), a $3.75 million student commons and food court update and a four million athletic centre expansion at the Welland campus.
Brouwer Construction successfully completed two earlier expansions to the Welland campus’s skills trade centre, but won’t be able to bid on a further $4.175 million expansion.
“We assumed we would be on the list without even questioning because of the past work we’ve done at Niagara College,” Henry Heikoop is quoted as saying in a published report. “It’s important for us. There’s not a lot of work out there for us right now. We were counting on getting one of these jobs. “We know we can be competitive and we’ll draw the local trades in with us, which these out-of-town contractors probably won’t.”
Green said the failure for local general contractors to win a spot on the pre-qualification list will cause hardship for local sub-trades. “When we don’t see local general contractors on the project, we know our chances of getting any work as a sub contractor is maybe five per cent,” he said.
He said the NCA has consulted with a procurement expert, and learned that under the provincial procurement policy “there’s some freedom to do what makes the most sense.”
The consequence of using out-of-town contractors became apparent at the provincial police headquarters project, constructed by Carillion Canada, “in (that) by and large most local contractors are cut out of the chase,” Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates told a local radio station.
“I think we have to sit down with all the partners and have this discussion,” Gates said. “Talk to the community. They’ll see they want to see local workers doing the police headquarters, Niagara College, the bridges being done.”
In a further statement to GTA Construction Report, Dorita Pentecsco, Niagara College’s director marketing, recruitment and communications, wrote: “Niagara College conducted a pre-qualification process for five specific projects that was open and fair, and used a broad range of generally-accepted criteria for projects of this size and scope. The local companies that participated in the RFPQ process were measured equally against the same set of criteria as all of the participants in this process.
“The criteria placed the most weight on demonstrated experience with projects of a similar size and scope; available resources and equipment, and the ability to complete the projects on time and on budget,” she wrote. “The roster of 15 contractors that were selected were the top scoring submissions to the RFPQ as determined by the evaluation committee using the published set of criteria.
“We wouldn’t characterize this as being about deficiencies; rather, it’s about using a fair and transparent process to identify those companies that are most qualified to bid on these five specific projects, by applying a set of generally-accepted criteria equally among all participants in the pre-qualification process.”
However, the NCA said in its statement: “We as an association are confused by the decision and question the college’s commitment to the Niagara community to which they reside,
“When the college require a co-op for a student or feedback on their program content we are there to support them,” the NCA statement said. “We are called on not only as local business but also as past graduates of their construction program and alumni of the college.”
“We’re asking for concession to be made to this list – to add local content or expand the list,” Green said.