Niagara County GOP-Led Legislature To Admonish One of Their Own
By Frank Parlato
In an unusual move, the Republican-led Niagara County Legislature will admonish one of its department heads, the Niagara County Director of Information Technology, Larry L. Helwig, also a Republican, for his handling of an RFP for installation of a cabling network for phones and a computer system for the county.
"The poor performance demonstrated by (Helwig)...has impeded and complicated what should have been a clearly defined process," the admonishing resolution, sponsored by freshman legislator Randy R. Bradt (R-North Tonawanda), reads.
Bradt charges that Helwig did not go with the lowest bid for products and services, failed to protect taxpayers, and his efforts were "driven by personal preferences or comfort levels."
Five proposals were publicly opened and read by the purchasing department on October 10, 2013. Advance 2000 of Amherst had the low bid of $605,184, for the new phone and data network.
The second lowest bidder was IP Logic at $673,641.
But Helwig, aided by his consultants, ECC Technologies and Cannon Design - in what has been called "bid rigging" - started adding costs to the bids, contending that Advance 2000’s bid was inaccurately low because it left out equipment that needed to be added to meet the specifications of the RFP.
"The bottom line is nothing can be changed in a bid," Bradt told the Niagara Falls Reporter. "What is submitted in a RFP must be adhered to. Helwig was adding and subtracting numbers to reflect a total cost of ownership."
There were eight additions to Advance 2000’s bid made by Helwig and two changes to IPLogic's bid. After adjusting the bids, adding more than $200,000 in costs to the Advance 2000 bid, the revised totals inverted the two low bidders making the bids $761,773 for IPLogic, which would use Cisco Systems equipment, versus $816,862 for Advance 2000, which uses Alcatel Lucent Technologies equipment.
These changes corrupted the process.
"RESOLVED, that this body does hereby admonish the Niagara County Director of Information Technology for attempting to undermine and create confusion related to the contract for the VoIP-Enabling Data Network Upgrade," the resolution reads.
Much of the fight was over Helwig's insistence on using Cisco products. In fact, the RFP used Cisco part numbers and said the county wanted those parts “or equivalents.”
Helwig later explained, “Cisco is the standard. They write the standards.”
But Carl Carbone, business development executive for Advance 2000, a reseller of Alcatel-Lucent equipment, said the bid documents were unfairly written to favor vendors of Cisco Systems technology.
When Public Works Chairman, Legislator Dr. John Syracuse asked Helwig to explain awarding the bid to IPLogic, Helwig said that Advance 2000 was going to use Alcatel Lucent equipment, which had no local support.
Bradt, an accountant with experience with IT services, contradicted this and said there is a distribution source in Toronto.
Helwig argued that certain specs for switches proposed by Advance 2000 were inadequate. He said maintenance costs would be higher, and a key switch Lucent makes “is a lower-grade switch.”
In fact, one of Helwig's additions to the Advance 2000 bid was for $69,217 for higher-priced Cisco switches because Alcatel-Lucent switches allegedly don’t meet the county’s requirements, a claim denied by both Advance 2000 executives and Bradt.
"Cisco is a premium product," Bradt said. "I don't feel we need to spend premium dollars when its taxpayers dollars."
“The analogy that I think describes a lot of the Legislature’s thinking was what Legislator [Mark] Grozio [D-Niagara Falls] put forth at a committee meeting: Cisco is a Cadillac, while the Alcatel-Lucent product is more of a Buick,” said the county's Public Information Officer Christian Peck. “Of course, I think most of our legislators and the public want to get to Chevy pricing.”
The more the legislators questioned Helwig, however, the more determined he was to oust Advance 2000. He went so far as to claim Advance 2000 underbid the labor portion of the job, question the financial stability of Alcatel Lucent, and claimed that an Alcatel-Lucent representative lied about work that they did for Nassau County.
All of which later legislators, after investigation, came to believe were untrue.
“The Legislature has ascertained that Advance 2000 clearly has the lowest bid,” Peck said, noting that IPLogic has bombarded lawmakers with correspondence questioning Advance 2000’s qualifications and rehashing Helwig’s talking points in their favor, including the now-discredited assertion that Alcatel-Lucent is in financial jeopardy.
“Their sales department has certainly been engaging in a full-court press, but their latest correspondence doesn’t offer any concessions in their prices,” Peck said. When asked to provide this newspaper with the IPLogic correspondence, Peck demurred, saying he was not sure if county lawmakers had yet received the letter, which arrived Friday.
Tuesday’s resolution admonishes Helwig for his role in the contract-steering efforts, blasting him for “attempting to undermine and create confusion related to the contract.”
Peck said county lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were ow questioning the Cisco vendor’s bid, calling IPLogic’s product a “premium solution with premium pricing.”
“So far, we have a bid that’s $110,000 lower than the competitor’s opening bid,” Peck said.
Asked if Helwig was facing discipline, Peck said, “I’m not going there right now,” although he did concede that the Legislature and county manager are able to hire and fire an IT director at will.
Bradt similarly declined comment on Helwig’s long-term employment.
Helwig, who is a Republican council member of the Town of Wheatfield, was reached by phone but declined to comment on the matter.
"We started at $780,000 (with IP Logic) we are now at $670,000 (with Advance 2000)," Bradt said. "That's a 14.7 percent savings."
There may be even greater savings.
The entire process may be rebid with further modifications of the specifications to achieve the "Chevrolet" needs of a county phone system.
“The Legislature has a number of options available to them, ranging from accepting that bid to, based on the contentiousness of the process, looking at recasting the RFP,” Peck added.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
Mar 18, 2014