Former Fort Smith Parks Commission Chairman Bobby Aldridge resigned from his volunteer position in September in order to pursue contract work with the city of Fort Smith and it has not taken long for Aldridge to land a $156,000 contract with the very city department for which he served.
The contract was awarded without a bidding process and allows Aldridge's company, Frontier Engineering, to design the River West Trail along the Arkansas River near downtown. The project is funded partially by a $1 million Walton Family Foundation grant, with the city of Fort Smith's eighth-cent sales tax funding an additional $1 million.
Asked by The City Wire weather Aldridge's past position with the Parks Commission factored into a decision to use Frontier as the engineering consultant on the River West Trail project, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup said Aldridge's background and familiarity with the Parks and Recreation Department was a benefit.
"Bobby was very familiar with the Trails and Greenways Master Plan and he's very much aware of the value and the benefits that trails have not only for our health and fitness, but also for our economic development and the future of the city. So those did weigh into ... did have a contribution to the selection."
Alsup said he did not believe there was any appearance of favoritism with Frontier's selection, saying that previous members of the Parks Commission were likely recipients of contracts during their service to the city, which Aldridge has avoided since his resignation was before coming under consideration for the engineering contract for River West Trail.
"There was architects and engineers before that have been on the Park Commission and they may have held …some contracts while they were on the commission. And that may have preceded me, too. But I don't have a good answer for you on that."
Even though Alsup said consideration was given to Frontier due to Aldridge's knowledge of the parks system, Aldridge disputed there was any difference in how his company was treated versus any other.
"No. I don't agree with that. It's the same process whether I was on the Parks Commission or not. The city has a statement of qualifications for all wanting to do work with the city. They identify firms that can do the work and narrow to a short list and interview those firms they believe are most qualified to do the work. That's essentially what happened on this project and happens on all projects."
He also said competitive bidding of projects, which typically grants projects to the lowest bidder, is forbidden under state law for engineering projects based on safety issues, adding that the selection of his company was above board.
"If you put it out on a bid, it goes to the lowest bidder regardless of qualifications. You don't want the lowest bidder designing if they are not qualified. (They use) qualification-based selection. That's what they did and in my opinion, I was the most qualified for the work and that's why the city chose me, not based on my relationships with the city."
In response to a request for any notes or records regarding the selection process, which included Alsup, Administrative Secretary Aaron Lee and Recreation Supervisor Jennifer Oberste, Alsup said, "I did not remember keeping any notes and have not found any."
But it was not Aldridge's past with the Parks Commission that got the attention of City Director George Catsavis at Tuesday's (Dec. 3) Fort Smith Board of Directors meeting, it was the cost of the contract.
Catsavis initially raised questions about whether the engineering contract was competitively bid, saying the charge "seemed awful high." Alsup said the contract was not bid, but instead fell under an alternate method for establishing the city's contracts.
"No. The process for engineering is we get three or more qualified firms, we go through the statement of qualifications and selected three or four and interview. Out of those, we select who we feel is the most qualified to do the project."
Alsup told The City Wire that in addition to Frontier, two other firms were interviewed for the engineering contract – Mickle Wagner Coleman and Jacobs Engineering.
Jacobs has been involved with Parks and Recreation Department projects, he said, including the construction of the two new ballfields the city is constructing for $1.2 million at Ben Geren Regional Park. The engineering for the project, according to Alsup, cost taxpayers $107,000.
The contract for the engineering of the River West Trail accounts for about 7.8% of the total cost of the project, Alsup said, which was less than the 8.9% of the budget set aside for the ballfields that went to Jacobs Engineering.
A challenge that has brought extra cost is lighting the trail along the river, something other city trails have not had to previously include in engineering and designs, Alsup said. But he added once the trail is designed and new additions are made, economies of scale could kick in to reduce costs, though it is not a guarantee.
"Seven or 8% is typical for this size project. You may get, because of economy of scale, a lower percentage on professional services if it's a really big job – if it's a $20 million project instead of a $2 million project. If there's a lot of repetition in what you're doing, say if you're doing a $20 million road expansion, there may be some repetition where you're sort of just building the same road continuously."
He also said construction of the River West Trail would be very similar to the construction of a road, something echoed by Frontier Engineering President Bobby Aldridge.
"Due to the complexity of this project, it will also have vehicular traffic for maintenance (of the trail) and so forth," he said, adding that a large amount of geological testing much be "done on the front end of it and that increases the cost."
Adding to the fee is the city's desire to have an increased level of observation by his company throughout the project to ensure quality work. An electrical engineer has also been brought in to design the underground electrical distribution system, Aldridge said, adding even more cost.
"I arrived at my fee based on what it will cost to design it. That fee just happened to fall out at 7.8%. Considering that construction observation is included, I think that fee is actually lower than state parks of typical nature or the river walk trails built in Little Rock."
Alsup said construction of the River West Trail is expected to begin in early Summer 2014 with completion by Summer 2015.