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Editorial: Price Should Matter When the Public Pays

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There’s an old saying equating low prices with poor quality that “you get what you pay for.” There’s another regarding high prices and average quality about being “taken to the cleaners.”

Albuquerque Public Schools officials and board members should ensure neither is happening when it comes to taxpayers’ investment in capital projects.

Those projects add up to hundreds of millions of public dollars annually. In fact, APS has a $368 million bond and property-tax proposal headed to voters Feb. 5.

So it’s not surprising that the recent revelation APS went with the high bid for a new classroom building at Sandia High School — a bid $1 million above the lowest — is raising eyebrows.

Nobody wants APS to be lured via low-ball bids that leave district crews repairing what the public paid for (a $50,000 repair after a sewer line was connected to a cafeteria grease trap at Hoover Middle School). And nobody wants taxpayers routinely paying millions more than the agreed on price because of change orders (of course there can be disputes over which party is responsible for those).

But nobody should want APS not to pursue the best deal from a price standpoint, either.

The Sandia contract, for $14.16 million, is supposed to cover a new science and math building, library, band and ROTC practice field and life sciences greenhouse. It went to HB Construction of Albuquerque.

The lowest bid, $13.03 million, came from Gerald Martin construction.

APS Chief Operations Officer Brad Winter says HB got the highest ranking under a system known as Qualification Based Selection, which factors in things including a company’s past performance, health and safety record and project management plan. Four other bids fell in between the Sandia high and low bids.

Unfortunately for future prospects, the other losers are a who’s who of Albuquerque contractors, easily recognizable names that have done lots of big jobs. It’s troubling to think that list isn’t qualified to do APS work. And not only does the system not leave much of a door open for contractors that have never worked for APS, it gives price just 40 percent weight.

Under that formula APS taxpayers ended up with the bid $1 million above the lowest, $500,000 above the second-lowest, $200,000 above the second-highest.

That doesn’t easily square with asking voters for more of their hard-earned cash. APS board member David Robbins says “we’re telling the public we need these monies, and we don’t take the second- or third-lowest bid, we take the highest bid. My concern is, how good are we in managing people’s money?”

Winter says the system has delivered higher-quality projects, but he would consider increasing the weight given to price. That should happen. Reversing it to 60-40 might make sense. Because just as important as weeding out poorer performers is considering the real bottom line.

Taxpayers should have confidence that when they spend more, they are getting what they paid for.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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