The folly of no-bid contracting when unnecessary for local governments hit home at Bossier City’s latest City Council meeting.
At the last moment, the issue sidelined at its Nov. 2 meeting the Council placed on the agenda. That would close the Union Pacific Railroad crossing at Shed Road, apparently in exchange for allowing the Walter O. Bigby Carriageway, almost complete, to fly over the tracks nearby.
The impetus for this came from a letter received from the railroad. After the last meeting, Republican Mayor Tommy Chandler and some councilors met with UP to see if they could modify the railroad’s insistence on closure, addressed in the letter that read publicly.
In it, UP stated that to keep the crossing open at this date would require at least 16 months of study and action, and potentially take more than 36. It claimed that desire took it by surprise, with the implication not closing hadn’t been brought ever to its attention.
That claim turned out to be fabrication. A representative from NTB Associates, the project designer, during public questioning produced multiple documents showing UP and the previous city engineer Mark Hudson had been in negotiations with that item on the table. He also questioned the assertion made by UP that the crossing was hazardous thus meriting closure, noting only a couple of vehicle accidents at it over the past few decades.
The document trail petered out after Hudson was dressed down by Republican Councilor David Montgomery in May, 2020 for presumed cost overruns of the project. At Montgomery’s urging, it was handed off to Manchac Consulting Group, which already had a no-bid contract with the city to oversee water and sewerage issues. Two months later, the arrangement became more formal when Hudson retired and a series of temporary contracts began employing Manchac employee Ben Rauschenbach in that position.
Clear from the documents, or lack of them on the crossing issue not long after Manchac took over the project, was a point implied at the last meeting: Manchac and Rauschenbach whether by indifference or incompetence dropped the ball by ignoring the issue while the project continued, enabling UP to put the city over a barrel now as to delay it would begin to accrue extra charges. Had Rauschenbach aggressively pursued the matter, the legwork likely would have been completed by now, nor did he and the city administration then headed by Republican former Mayor Lo Walker, a Montgomery ally, seem interested in applying leverage to UP such as by invoking state law that fines railroads for blocking crossings for more than 20 minutes.
Even as conceding their weak hand, councilors voted 4-2 to continue the matter a couple of more weeks in the desperate hope they could pull a rabbit out of the hat to keep the crossing open. That vote distribution mimicked the one of the previous meeting to continue, with one consistent defender of no-bid contracting, Republican Scott Irwin (who will leave his temporary appointment before year’s end), and newcomer Republican Vince Maggio voting against, who effectively swapped places from the prior vote with another no-bid advocate, Democrat Bubba Williams.
(Interestingly, Montgomery, who on multiple occasions has defended the city’s practice of awarding no-bid contracts to favored firms, was AWOL on this day. But seeing as last year he earned almost $282,000 in commissions from area local governments for brokering insurance for them which may have included some no-bid contracts, no doubt his time is at a premium hustling all this business and his constituents and taxpayers will have to take a back seat from time to time.)
Whether this incident influenced his attitude, Chandler hasn’t expressed much confidence in Rauschenbach with recent remarks that he plans on ending the temporary arrangement by hiring a permanent engineer as soon as possible and not Rauschenbach. He did indicate support for an extension for Manchac managing the Carriageway project, as it is very late in the game to switch quarterbacks.
This experience does more than cast doubt on the ability of Manchac and its employees to work for the city’s best interests. It points to the risk and consequences of offering no-bid work – much less forfeiting potential cost savings – where a contractor who feels assured of future business lacking any imperative such as having to bid competitively and convincingly for city work becomes too comfortable which affects its performance negatively. When his administration deals with future contracting, Chandler should insist upon bidding for all but the most trivial in size or for those emergency by nature.