City Council management award preview, $110M project, April 3, 2017

Harbert staffers pictured at last year’s chili cookoff benefiting Homewood’s Exceptional Foundation. The firm’s bid boasted its community involvement and two years’ unpaid preliminary work on the schools and parks projects. A competing firm, HPM, accused the city of sharing its bid with Harbert beforehand, saying it wasn’t surprised given the show of favoritism to Harbert from some task force members.

After two years’ work behind closed doors, the governing bodies of Homewood, its school system and park board will come into the open this evening to select a management company overseeing a $110 million spending package on school, police and park facilities.

Only in the last four months has the process been quasi-visible as a task force  selected by council president Bruce Limbaugh issued a request for Pre-Construction Management proposals and winnowed the original five bidders to three:  Harbert International, HPM (Hoar Project Management), and Robins & Morton. After some protest, Mr. Limbaugh’s task force, which was structured apparently to skirt state open meeting and records laws, agreed to open some meetings to the public while reserving the option to keep selected conversations private. Mr. Limbaugh exercised that option for B. L. Harbert on March 2 by dismissing the few public spectators — including a councilmember not seated on the task force–while a Harbert rep. disclosed private information.

Finally, in a gesture of renewed openness, Limbaugh on March 20 agreed to allow the full council to vote on whether to take Harbert’s offer, while HPM lobbied hard for an unbiased hearing. See HPM’s letter here.

See the resulting backlash to the months of shutting out the majority of councilmembers.


Screen shot from an Excel chart, linked above (chart and analysis contributed to HAL; based on information made public)

 Comparisons and caveats:

Most of the bidding firms have strong reputations in school and other institutional projects. HPM recently handled a Vestavia HIlls school project.

Only Hoar Project Management and Harbert provided full prices for comparison. (The city’s request in the RFP is for Pre-construction Management only, although Harbert voluntarily supplied total costs and HPM supplied additional cost breakdowns at the task force request. See the HPM letter, linked above. It isn’t known if the other companies were also asked to submit follow-up figures.)

While Harbert puts most of its costs on the construction side of the project, HPM places its costs on the front end planning, pre-construction side. The difference between Harbert’s pre-construction number ($585K) vs the other 2 finalists HPM ($2.182 million) and RM ($2.853 million) must be a vastly different approach in management style for this type of professional service because the timelines, if provided, for all of the projects are very similar.

Hoar – $2.6 million
Hoar has extensive K-12 and municipal projects–70 in fact–under its belt. They have worked with several neighboring governments, including Vestavia, Pelham, and Jefferson County BOE. Hoar estimates the total preconstruction costs to come in at $2.232 million and the total construction costs to come in at $2.56. With most of the work being done on the front end: analyzing the needs, including demography; evaluating and helping chose qualified contractors through the RFP process, and then light oversight on the back end.

Harbert – $4.5 million
The proposal lists numerous parks, organizations, but only 2 public schools or municipalities outside of Homewood in their references section. The total is $585K for pre-construction and that includes the optional services (demography and the three elementary schools life cycle analysis). There was an emphasis during the proposal meeting from the task force about demography services, so for this analysis, it will be included and not optional. Harbert also outlines the cost for fees, which is good to know going in and has a safety manager listed, which when dealing with schools and public facilities is of utmost importance.

Robbins & Morton – $2.9 million (pre-construction only)


Volkert – $4.1 million (based on Volkert’s bid, stated as a percentage, and assumed to include total costs, not just pre-construction.)

Cumming-CPM – $2.8 million (pre-construction only)

But why?

The entire project–from the clandestine preliminaries by Harbert and city leaders, to the surprise tax and bond vote in October, the RFP and exclusion of new council members from interviewing the bidders — arouses concerns about what information is being hidden, and why.

  • For one, even though some past council members have begrudged the schools’ designated penny tax, the schools enjoy nearly universal support from Homewood residents and voters. Why hide the process from them and sow such distrust?
  • For another, all the final firms bidding for the management project are big names in the field and most have satisfactory credentials for the job (HPM and Volkert have the most school construction experience, but only HPM made it to the final round.) What has the city gained from the protracted RFP process?
  • Finally, project management is a professional service and not subject to bid laws. Selection is really the prerogative of the mayor, anyway, and Harbert, whose involvement dated back two years, was the obvious choice. Why bother with a task force and RFP, especially when time is of the essence?

From a plan by B. L. Harbert, which worked with Homewood for two years on a comprehensive expansion and relocation of school and park facilities. The city purchased the land in August for $4.25 million.

Whatever the outcome of the school/park expansion years from now, it’s fair to say the process didn’t benefit from secrecy either from a practical or principles standpoint. Could openness and adopting (and following) written procedures have prevented the negative buzz about transparency and lack of trust? With projects at the magnitude of $110 million taking us into future years, should the city consider full-time management staff or continue relying on the decision-making abilities of part-time and volunteer elected officials?

Selected pages from four of five bidders; HPM original bid not included:  HARBERT; Robins & MortonHPM letter; Cumming-CPM; Volkert


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