Jason Zona wants consolidation
The debate over the bidding for installation of the new VOIP data network for Niagara County may have taken a turn in another direction.
No one, including the lowest bidder, may get the award.
The project may be scrapped for the foreseeable future.
Two weeks ago, Legislator Randy Bradt (R-North Tonawanda) sponsored a resolution to admonish IT Director Larry Helwig for his role in what has been called "contract-steering efforts" for the data network. Bradt condemned Helwig for "attempting to undermine and create confusion related to the contract."
Bradt further charged that Helwig did not select the lowest bid for products and services, but was "driven by personal preferences or comfort levels."
Bradt's resolution was sent to committee.
Not only Bradt, but the entire GOP legislative majority was concerned about how Helwig altered bids to invert the low bidder and the second low bidder in order to award the contract to the company he preferred, and who submitted a much higher bid.
Advance 2000 of Amherst had the low bid of $605,184. The second lowest bidder was IP Logic at $673,641.
But Helwig inverted the two lowest bids by adding and subtracting cost, thus artificially inflating the bids to $761,773 for IPLogic, and $816,862 for Advance 2000.
Both companies have threatened lawsuits if the other one is selected.
Democrat Jason Zona is asking the majority to call the whole thing off.
"The only way to correct this process would be to rebid out the entire job," said Zona.
Zona also pointed out that the county is not in such desperate need for new phones that a rebid cannot be feasible.
Although outdated, the existing phones still work. Zona explained.
According to several county workers familiar with the phone service, Ronco Communications, which maintains the system, has enough of an available supply of parts to keep the system operational for years.
Aside from potential lawsuits, there may be two other reasons not to move ahead with the project.
The entire RFP may have been overdesigned. Hence, installation of the network may be wasteful if installed in buildings the county may close.
Helwig's plan calls for a dense network of 1900 phone drops with routers and switches spread over 30 county buildings.
But Zona says the county may close some of these buildings in the future.
"This flawed bidding process is an opportunity to slow down and put together a plan for long-term county consolidation of buildings and facilities," said Zona. "With over 30 buildings the county maintains, along with numerous wasteful, costly leases, Niagara County is in desperate need of a long term plan."
Republican legislators have been considering a plan to consolidate county buildings into one county campus on Junction Rd in Lockport.
"Obviously, you don't want to wire up a building or buildings that you may later decide to close," said Republican Clyde Burmaster (R-Ransomville), who spearheaded the proposal to study a consolidation plan. "I believe we should hold up on awarding a bid until we determine which buildings are going to close. I think it would be advantageous for taxpayers to have a long-term plan for consolidation before installing the data network."
Niagara County Public Information Officer Christian W. Peck noted that the full legislature has the option of considering not awarding the contract.
"[T]here is clearly a low bid, and that came from Advance 2000. However, since the process has been 'contentious,' I think it's reasonable to expect the Legislature will consider a rebid as an option," said Peck.
He would not clarify whether that rebid would be undertaken immediately or after a consolidation plan has been advanced.
County lawmakers are not expected to announce a course of action prior to their Tuesday (April 8) meeting. The bids, by the language of the RFP, expire April 10. Therefore, if no action is taken on the 8th, the bids will automatically expire and become invalid.
In the meantime, it is no secret that Helwig is in severe disfavor among most county legislators. Peck refused to speculate on whether lawmakers would terminate Helwig who earns $93,000 as director of IT for the county.
As a clear indication that Helwig is facing possible termination by a block of legislators who may have the votes to seal the fate of the at-will appointee, a Wheatfield contingent, led by Supervisor Robert Cliff, his wife Andrea, Wheatfield GOP Committee Chairman Jim Heuer, and Wheatfield Republican operative Patti Weiss, have been lobbying legislators not to fire Helwig, who is also a GOP Town of Wheatfield councilman.
At least one Democrat has sided with Helwig.
Lawyer Johnny Destino, an active member of the county Democratic Party, was formerly technical services manager for the Seneca Gaming Corporation. He helped design and implement their data networks at the Niagara Falls, Allegany, and Buffalo Creek casinos. Destino maintains that Helwig's preference for Cisco and the costs resulting from Helwig's inversion of low bidders is not divorced from actual costs.
"The county is already using Cisco routers and switches and to introduce another product-with unknown compatibility issues-would necessitate the retraining of staff and paying more for support and maintenance," said Destino. "You have to make sure the network has the capability to provide the quality of service required for voice traffic...You don't want to switch from land-line quality sound to having every call to the county sound like you're talking on a cell phone."
Finally, one aspect of the Helwig-designed RFP may seal the fate of the plan to doom: As mentioned above, the plan calls for 1900 "drops" for phones for a county that has 1450 employees.
And all of these 1450 do not need individual phones (i.e janitors, drivers, DPW and parks workers, launderers at the county jail).
Yet Helwig designed a plan for 1900 phones for a staff that needs perhaps 900 phones, then went out and pushed for Cisco.
Helwig doubled the need and pushed for the most expensive product.
Why? This is one of the concerns legislators privately say troubles them about this matter.
When contacted by the Reporter, Helwig initially agreed to explain his position. Then, when an appointment time was set, he refused to talk.
Bill Rutland, President of AFSCME Local 182, the Niagara County Blue Collar Union, believes the plan was not only overdesigned, but unnecessary from the start.
"Niagara County legislators have spent months wrangling over bids for the new VOIP phone system," Rutland said. "While they argue with bidders, consultants, department heads, and political opponents about the switches, routers, etc., the most alarming thing is not potential lawsuits from bid-rigging, but the fact that if you are in need of county services and you call, they will answer the phone. Throughout all this grandstanding about network connectivity, back-up power systems, Cisco vs. Lucent, county workers will answer your call and direct you to where you desire. The phones work fine. This project is just another waste of your tax dollars."