Niagara College reverses procurement decision

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Two of four local contractors can now bid on college work in expanded pre-qualification list

GTA Construction Report staff writer

Niagara College resolved a controversy that arose when it denied access to local contractors from five major capital projects by expanding the pre-qualification list from 15 to 29 companies – in the process allowing two of the four otherwise disqualified local bidders to compete for the work.

The Niagara Construction Association (NCA) raised a storm of public controversy in January when it learned that none of its members would be able compete for the five projects, valued at $30 million. Several had successfully completed work on earlier phases of the same buildings/projects.

Niagara College president Dan Patterson told the Welland Tribune that the college found a way around the problem, by pre-qualifying every business – not just the original 15 selected – who scored more than 70 per cent in the initial pre-qualification assessment.

There were 43 bidders overall initially.

“Within that range we had the discretion to pick a smaller number (of pre-qualifiers),” he said.  “We picked 15 qualified contractors.”

Patterson said the decision to increase the number of pre-qualified bidders complies with provincial rules. The larger pre-qualified list, of course, also increases competition and may result in the college obtaining better prices for its projects.

The college didn’t specify which of the two four local general contractors were added to the pre-qualification list.

Dorita Pentesco, Niagara College’s director of marketing, said in another media report that the college had published the 70 per cent standing requirement to achieve pre-qualification. “But we didn’t specify how many we would take at the 70 per cent threshold.”

 

niagara college welland campus

The college initially decided to take the top 15 in ranking order – it didn’t specify what the percentage cut-off the bottom contractor of the 15 selected would have been.  “We saw an opportunity to increase the level of competition in the value that we would get from the bidding process,” she is quoted as saying. “So, from that, we decided to expand the pre-qualified list to include everybody that actually made the 70 per cent threshold.”

“We’re thrilled with the whole thing,” incoming NCA president Kevin Brown, of King Contractors in Niagara Falls, told The Tribune.  “We’re happy we’ll get some local input from two local general contractors, which may motivate some local subtrades to price the work as well.”

The NCA had been concerned that without any local competitors bidding the work, outside contractors would use their own network of subtrades, shutting out the local industry.  The association believes that local subtrades, given the opportunity, should be able to compete effectively for the work, with their relationships, connections and locally-available labour and infrastructure.

Projects on the pre-qualification list include a $9 million culinary building expansion and a $9 million athletic facility, both at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus, as well as a $3.75 million student commons and food court upgrade, a $4 million athletic centre expansion and a $4.25 skilled trades centre expansion at the Welland campus.

Meanwhile, Patterson also told the Tribune that there’s more work on the horizon, with a total value of about $50 million in the next five years.

The college may use the 29 contractors on the revised pre-qualification list for these additional projects, but it can elect to put them out for a separate bidding process.

“Yesterday I was meeting with our team at the campus and I’m excited about getting shovel ready,” he told the community newspaper.  “These are really important projects for the college and the university.

Brown says the NCA will work to improve its relationships with the college. “We’ll try to meet a couple of times a year to talk about what they’re doing and how we can work together and help the graduates.”

The local problem arose in part because of the implication that the NCA was seeking local preferences, which indeed violates provincial procurement rules in the Broader Public Sector Procurement Directive (BPSPD).

The Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA) said the issues arise from a poor pre-qualification process.

“In fact, it is one of the top three issues faced by the Construction and Design Alliance of Ontario members who have been aggressively addressing the issues with owners and the Ontario Public Buyers Association,” the OGCA bulletin said.

“We have met with top ministry representatives to try to improve and clarify the BPSPD, but the government has tossed this directive back and forth between ministries, having just done so again, and refuses to take responsibility for its misuse.”

In a statement, NCA general manager Karin Sheldrick said the NCA had been working diligently for three weeks with Niagara College to review the college’s procurement process.

“The [provincial procurement policies used in the pre-qualification process can discriminate against small to medium size firms,” she said in a statement. “Further complicating this process is the amount of latitude available in the evaluation process. Our issue was not about ‘local preference’; the issue was about transparency in the procurement process.”

“Through these meetings with Niagara College, various pre-qualification issues were discussed.    “Although we did not agree on all points, we did agree to meet within the next six months to further our discussions. The NCA is pleased with this, and we will continue to foster an open dialogue with Niagara College.

Sheldrick said the NCA would like to thank theHeavy Construction Association of Niagara, Niagara Peninsula Electrical Contractors Association, and the Mechanical Contractors Association Niagara Inc. for their support during the controversy, saying their “experience with similar situations helped push this issue to the forefront.”

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