By Rachel Madison
After years of planning and delays, the City of Liberty Hill has finally awarded the bid for the community swimming pool to Liberty Hill-based STR Constructors.
The project, which will be built at City Park on CR 200, has been in the works since 2018. It broke ground in June 2019, but was delayed due to budget constraints and multiple redesigns. In fall 2020, the Council set the swim center budget at $1.8 million, with $1.3 million coming from bonds and $500,000 coming from a Texas Parks and Wildlife grant.
Architecture firm Halff Associates designed—and redesigned—the project, which will include a play area for young children, splash-pad style amenities, swimming lanes, a tanning shelf and a beach entry. The project will also include a pavilion, restrooms, vending and storage spaces.
Brian Binkowski, of Halff Associates, said after going through an extensive redesign to better reflect the City’s budget for the project, the project could finally go out for bid in two parts. The bids were discussed at the Sept. 22 City Council meeting. The first part was for the swim center itself, and the second part was for the lift station and force main that will service the facility.
“Those are two separate projects, and contractors did have the option to bid for both,” he said. “Four contractors were successful in bidding for the swim center project.”
Binkowski said based upon contractor qualifications, references and an evaluation of bid unit pricing, his firm recommended Austin-based Gilger Contractors be awarded the contract for the project at a base bid amount of $1,992,600. He added that Gilger has constructed other local amenity centers, like the one at Orchard Ridge subdivision. The firm also built Liberty Hill City Hall.
Council member Tony DeYoung said even though Gilger had the lowest bid, he wanted to award the project to the contractor the Council felt was best for the project, adding that he gives a lot of credence to local businesses, citing STR Constructors was based in Liberty Hill.
Binkowski said his firm’s recommendation came from the local government code, which requires the lowest bid or best value for the municipality to be the awarded bid.
“We have to award based on the lowest bid,” he said. “If we had done a [competitive sealed proposal] process, that would have allowed us to look at experience, local presence and price. It was all taken into consideration, but based on the pricing and feedback I received from City staff, this is the bid we went with. Maybe it needs to be rethought.”
John Robinson, CEO of STR Constructors, submitted a letter to Mayor Liz Branigan before the Sept. 22 meeting because he felt his business was the best value contractor for the job. In the letter, Robinson said, “We were the second lowest bidder. However, the lowest bidder only beat our cost by $5,400. It was just brought to my attention that this project is going to be awarded to the lowest bidder whose business address is a P.O. Box in Austin, Texas.”
At the meeting, Robinson added that the differences between the bids is less than half a percent of the project’s value, and he argued that his company’s bid was a “hard cost” at $1,998.000.06, meaning if the project goes over that total, they are responsible for the additional costs. He added that Gilger Contractors had a line item on their bid for splash features with a cost of $26,981.80 with a “contractor allowance,” meaning the contractor could increase the amount they had bid for those specific features—and it would be the City’s responsibility to pay that difference. STR Constructors’ cost for the splash features is a hard $50,000, Robinson said.
“The word allowance is bothersome to me,” Council member Crystal Mancilla said. “A bid came through and an item was put on here that could impact the City in a negative way, and in all reality it may not be the low bid because of that. I understand we have two great companies, but if we’re talking about being up front and clear, I don’t want the project to end up costing more. I know where my vote lies.”
Chris Cormier, project manager at Gilger, said when his company does local projects, like City Hall, they use as many local subcontractors and workers as they can.
“We want our guys to be local, too,” he said.
Council member Chris Pezold added that while Gilger’s bid was the lowest, it was easy to see “a hole” because of that allowance, which caused the Council to question that bid.
“This is an incomplete bid,” he said. “When the numbers are this close, and there’s an item like [the splash features] that could easily ellipse, I would view this bid as incomplete. There is no room for contractor allowance on bids.”
Robinson added that if all the subcontractors for Gilger would have submitted responsible bids, there wouldn’t be an issue, because the numbers would be set.
“Every other jurisdiction out there would not accept that proposal,” he said.
Council member Kathy Canady said the swim center project has “been a train wreck from the beginning” and made a motion to award the contract to STR Constructors, adding that she wasn’t pleased with Gilger’s work on City Hall, because the building has thin walls and multiple leaks.
“Did we compare their experience?” she asked. “If we have problems with City Hall, how do we go about that?”
City Administrator Lacie Hale said the City’s maintenance team has corrected the leaks, one that was on the balcony and one just outside City Secretary Nancy Sawyer’s office, and added she can’t speak to the thinness of the walls.
Council voted unanimously to award the contract to STR.
Council member Angela Jones said in the future, to prevent issues like this, Council should have the ability to view the top three bids so they can get an idea of what is being proposed and they can ask questions.
The second project, for the lift station and force main, received six bids, four of which were the contractors that bid on the swim center project, said City Engineer Curtis Steger. The lowest bidder for the project was Patriot Underground, LLC, at a cost of $203,445. DeYoung asked if the six bids were “apples to apples,” to which Steger said yes. Canady made a motion to award the bid to Patriot Underground. The motion passed unanimously.
The swim center is expected to begin construction this month and should be completed by May 2022. The pool is expected to open to the public in June 2022.