COLUMBIA, SC — Richland County Council rescinded its decision to hire an out-of-state engineering firm to manage its new transportation program amid complaints that homegrown firms should profit from work done by a local sales tax.
Council members met privately for 90 minutes with their McNair firm lawyers, Liz Crum and Frannie Heizer, before announcing they would start over in selecting a team to manage their $1.07 billion investment in roads, public transit and pedestrian improvements.
Observers were stunned.
Immediately after the unanimous vote, Councilman Jim Manning suggested “some high-ranking county official be terminated” for poor guidance. He said later he didn’t know who should be held responsible for the false start to the highly anticipated construction program, approved by voters over a year ago.
The U-turn likely means a delay of two months while the county picks a construction management team – again.
With five teams in the running, the council last month selected Kentucky-based ICA Engineering over second-place finisher CECS of Columbia. The vote was 6-4.
CECS lodged a rare protest of the award, estimated at $50 million over five years.
Councilman Paul Livingston, point man on the transportation program, said the council didn’t want to get balled up in a lengthy legal protest – which could have ended up in the courts – and thought it best to advertise for new proposals and start over.
Because of the protest, the county never finalized a contract with ICA.
“Gotta concentrate on local, the local firms, make sure they get work,” Councilman Kelvin Washington said later.
ICA’s program manager, David Beaty, said his firm would try again.
“I’m disappointed, but remain committed,” Beaty said.
“We’ll re-evaluate and try to continue to improve.”
Two members of another group that fought for the contract said they would expect the same five, engineer-led teams to resubmit. “Anybody who’s anybody was on somebody’s team,” said Tony Mizzell, a former council member who’s now a marketing consultant.
Once the council made its selection, some members of a citizen “watchdog” committee overseeing the transportation sales tax objected that CECS had the edge and should have been tapped because it’s headquartered in Columbia. They said voters had been promised money from the transportation sales tax would benefit local firms.
The county would not release information about how the five teams were rated by a five-person committee of staff members except to say that 40 percent of the scoring was based on the hiring of local, minority and small businesses. Other factors included transportation experience and the ability to mobilize quickly.
County Council initially asked the in-house committee to winnow the field to three, but then decided to go ahead and interview all five teams.
The competing firms set up partnerships to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and to hiring local companies. ICA, for example, put together five engineering firms, a financial management company and public-relations agency.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.