Broward County officials acted arbitrarily and used ''fundamentally flawed logic'' when they recommended that the county buy buses that cost at least $16 million more than those offered by a competitor, a hearing officer found in a report released today.
The recommendation that the county award the contract to the low bidder comes as Broward County Transit is struggling with a shortage of working buses and mechanics to fix them.
In fact, BCT is so desperate for buses that starting next month, it will use old Miami-Dade Transit buses that Dade had planned to retire.
Hearing officer Rafael Suarez-Rivas decided that the Broward County Commission, which has final say over the contract, should buy the buses from North American Bus Industries, whose bid was rejected earlier by Broward purchasing director Glenn Cummings.
''This will be a really good solution to the problems that Broward County bus riders have been facing with old buses,'' said John Dellaportas, an attorney for NABI. The county will get a fleet of new buses at a great price, he said.
The county could still take the dispute over the contract -- potentially worth more than $100 million for hundreds of buses -- to court.
But in a 35-page report, Suarez-Rivas concluded that county staff judged the bids ''in a random and haphazard manner.'' Broward wrongly declared that Anniston, Ala.-based NABI failed to meet its requirements, he wrote.
BCT Director Christopher Walton said Wednesday that he recommended the high bidder, New Flyer. But he declined to elaborate today and had no comment about the hearing officer's decision. Cummings was out of town and could not be reached for comment today, but has said in the past that NABI's buses didn't meet county requirements.
Earlier this year, Broward County procurement officials concluded that NABI's $116 million bid didn't meet the county's qualifications -- even though it was $25 million less than a $141 million bid from New Flyer.
NABI filed a bid protest, which led to a hearing that concluded in late November.
BCT was looking to buy new buses to shore up its aging fleet, expand service in January and add a new route in March.
The agency could have saved money if it had bought some buses earlier this year. The cost will rise -- perhaps as much as $20,000 a bus -- next year in complying with new Environmental Protection Agency standards, Walton said.
Meanwhile, BCT has arranged to temporarily use about 20 buses from Miami-Dade for a nominal fee.
The buses have about 500,000 miles on them -- a typical benchmark for retirement, said Manny Palmeiro of Miami-Dade Transit.
But Walton said the buses are usable.
''Just because a bus has reached 12 years of age does not mean it is not a useful bus,'' he said. ``We'll do what is necessary to make sure the bus is functional and safe.''
Others are skeptical.
''Let's face it -- you get somebody else's junk, you are going to have problems,'' said Bill Howard, president of the union that represents BCT mechanics, drivers and other workers. ``If one agency is ready to retire them, they have seen plenty of action, that's for sure.''
Broward bus breakdowns increased 10 percent between fiscal 2005 and 2006. The county's buses rack up more than 53,000 miles a year -- more than 10,000 above federal standards.
PAY PROBLEMS, TOO
About 25 percent of the mechanic positions are vacant at BCT, which pays less than some other agencies like the Broward School District. And the union contract expired more than 14 months ago.
''Our pay scale needs to be addressed, and we are doing that in the current negotiations,'' Walton said.
Brett White said he got a $6-an-hour raise when he left his BCT mechanic job for a similar position in Washington state earlier this year.
''While down there, I was getting ready to file bankruptcy. I couldn't make basic credit card bills, utility bills, car payments and my mortgage. Up here, I am able to survive, make those payments and bring everything up to date,'' he said. ``They are not keeping up with the cost of living down there.''
Thanks to the Bradenton Herald for this report.