2015-08-28 / Community

Board’s purchase procedure questioned

Apparent forklift faux pas uncovered
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen in Kennebunk have agreed to conduct a doover on the purchase of a forklift following allegations a public works employee violated the town’s purchasing policy.

Earlier this year, the town sold at auction a 1960s era forklift used to move racks of stored items — such as tires, pallets of spare truck parts, and boxes of “pay-as-you-throw” trash bags — inside the public works garage on Sea Road.

“I think everybody took a gasp when it was said something like that was being used,” said Kevin Donovan, chairman of the board of selectmen, recalling revelations about the age of the unit made during annual budget talks this past spring.

According to Town Manager Barry Tibbetts, the town got “a couple hundred dollars” for the old forklift, which he described as being, “eons old — at least 30 years, or more.”

Tibbetts said he first advertised for a new forklift, but the lowest offer ($34,000) easily exceeded the $25,000 limit appropriated by selectmen for the purchase when crafting this year’s annual town budget.

So, Tibbetts tried again, this time soliciting bids for a used model.

At their Aug. 11 meeting, selectmen were presented with the results of seven bids — ranging from $17,500 to $31,957 — along with a recommendation from Tibbetts and new Public Works Director Eric Labelle that they award the contract to Lewiston-based NITCO Inc., which offered a 2005 Yale GLP050 lift for $18,842. That sum included $16,400 as the base price of the forklift, along with $2,082 for a host of extras, including an 8-foot fork extension, a rain cover, trailer mover attachments, data tags, and one day of training in how to drive it.

All seemed well and good and on the way to a quick vote as selectmen had initially meant to dispense with the agenda item quickly, to fill time while waiting for the town assessor to return with documents needed to complete a previous agenda item.

But then former selectman Albert Searles rose from his seat in the audience.

The information packet provided to selectmen, and also made available for public view on the town website, included an email chain between public works employee Steve Leach and Scott Smith, a salesman for NITCO’s Capital Equipment Sales. Smith had initially offered a 2007 forklfift for $17,918, but Leach asked for a price on the 2005 version the town had been given to test drive.

After an apparent offline exchange of pricing, Leach wrote back in an Aug. 5 email, telling Smith, “Boss man says sharpen your pencil a little more. We will do $2,000 less than the first one.”

That prompted an offer of $16,400 — down from an apparent original request of $17,000. That was marked “counter offer” and forwarded by Leach to Labelle.

Searles found fault with the Smith- Leach-Labelle exchange.

Earlier this spring, while Searles was still in office, selectmen had taken some heat from one of the bidders on the town’s new solid waste and recycling contract, who accused the town of negotiating with one bidder in favor of others.

Selectmen dismissed that notion, but did “spend a lot of time going over the policy,” Searles said. Those talks were evidently fresh in his mind when he read the forklift fusillade.

“You can correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like someone was negotiating a price with a vendor on a bidded object,” he said. “When we send things out to bid, the bid comes in and that’s what it is. Why is a town employee telling him to sharpen his pencil in the middle of a bid process? That’s a violation of our bid policy.”

However, Labelle defended the request for better pricing.

“This is not a new product, so it’s a little more difficult to compare apples to-apples,” he said. “There has to be some judgment on the mechanic’s part to say, this is a good machine, or this is not a good machine for the town. I would ask anybody to give me their best possible price.

“As far as the bid process, in my experience, once a low bidder is selected, I think negotiation is allowed,” Labelle said, suggesting that even NITCO’s 2007 lift had resulted in the lowest price realized.

However, Tibbetts pointed out the low bid was actually submitted by Illinois Lift Equipment of West Chicago, at $17,500 for a 2006 Hyundai HDF30-5.

That said, Tibbetts added that procuring a forklift from the Midwest came with its own set of costs and concerns, when compared to an in-state dealer.

Still, Searles remained unconvinced. He agreed the recommended unit may well be the best choice, and he pointedly refused to accuse Leach of conspiring to aid one bidder at the expense of another.

It was the letter of the law that appeared to be violated, he said, and the issue, he intimated from his tone, was not the end result, but the path taken to get there.

“That speaks to the integrity of this town,” he said.

Selectman Deborah Beal took Searles’ view.

“If this was sent out for bid with certain specs, and now we’re opening this back up and negotiating, Al is absolutely right,” she said.

At that, Tibbetts said, “We’ll put it back out (to bid) and that’ll resolve it.“

“Yeah, let’s do that,” said board Chairman Kevin Donovan.

However, Beal was not quite finished. If new bids were to be solicited, she said, Tibbetts and Labelle should find money left unspent elsewhere in the public works budget to keep from having to settle for used equipment.

“Just my two cents worth, I’d rather find $8,000 from somewhere else and buy new,” she said.

That drew a second comment of support from Donovan.

“If it costs more, it costs more, but let’s go ahead and do that, so we can get it warrantied,” he said.

Tibbetts said he would return with a new set of bids at the next selectmen’s meeting, Sept. 8.

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