The citizens committee overseeing Los Angeles' school repair bond funds brushed aside a hard sell from a local energy consortium Wednesday, opening a whirlwind bidding process on the massive job of air conditioning nearly 300 city schools.
After hearing presentations by nine of the 11 concerns that want the $190-million job, the committee decided to allow them time to catch up with the proposal thrown into the ring early by a group of power companies called the Energy Alliance.
Wednesday's meeting of the oversight committee was a chaotic session that underscored the uncertainty about what kind of watchdog the committee should be. The seven members haggled in front of the stunned bidders over how the air-conditioning proposals should be evaluated.
Voters created the oversight committee when they gave approval last April to Proposition BB, a $2.4-billion measure to repair sagging campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The oversight committee has no power to make spending choices, but has considerable political clout at a time when public skepticism about district runs high.
Oversight committee Chairman Steven Soboroff, saying he was determined to have an open process, argued for the committee to review of all the proposals next month.
But other members, fearing that task to be far too detailed for a citizen group, persuaded Soboroff to let the district staff cut the list to three for the committee's consideration.
Several of the bidders, and even committee members, said they remained confused--and in some cases unhappy--about how the process would work and what they were being asked to bid on. While several nationwide energy suppliers were proposing to package the power with the equipment, others offered only to install the air conditioners.
"How can we be bidding apples to apples?" said Dennis S. Flier, president of Overland mechanical contractors of Van Nuys, which presented an installation bid in partnership with Sylmar-based Tutor-Saliba.
"I can't give a $30-million break in exchange for energy savings later on," Flier said.
"Then get a partner or don't do it," shot back Soboroff, who said he expected the other bidders to follow the lead of the Energy Alliance in bringing creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit into the work.
The alliance, a joint venture of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and two energy companies, proposes to install the air conditioners in 296 schools and supply the power to run them under a three-year contract that provides the district a $1.5-million annual energy credit.
The proposal has drawn criticism for tying the district into a contract at the dawn of national energy deregulation, which goes into effect in January.
Several of the bidders offered other innovative energy plans, including a nationwide electricity wholesaler who promised to include the district in the equivalent of a billion-dollar buyers' union to drive down the price.
Others bidders offered to reduce energy consumption at the schools by as much as 20% through conservation measures.
Despite having promised to allow the Energy Alliance no more time than the other bidders, Soboroff and other committee members got carried along on a lengthy, hard-hitting sales pitch in which alliance program manager Michael Dochterman implored them to immediately recommend his proposal.
"Every day we sit in meetings and talking about this is another day added on the end of this," Dochterman said. "We can start today. The only question is why we aren't starting today."
To buttress his plea, Dochterman had a team of attendants roll out a shopping cart full of plans covering each school and hold up the first 5-foot-tall sheet of a 500-page master schedule of the work.
Dochterman said the consortium has invested 20,000 man-hours in an evaluation of each of the 296 schools on the current list for air conditioning and would do the work for $159 million, $30 million less than the district estimate.
"As wonderful as this is, we do owe it to the world to spend another 30 days perspiring to see if the other people can do something better," Soboroff told Dochterman.
Yet, Soboroff, Mayor Richard Riordan's appointee to the oversight committee, praised the Energy Alliance proposal and challenged other bidders to meet the same standard.
Pushing relentlessly to keep the process moving and to keep the committee's profile high. Soboroff initially asked for an Oct. 1 meeting to review all the proposals.
"I want to hear about them all," he said.
But David Barulich, a representative on the committee from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Assn., said he didn't want to personally review all the proposals.
"I saw that cart there. I'm not going to look through that times 11," Barulich said. "What do you see as our role?"
When others chimed in, Soboroff consented to a plan in which school district staff would first narrow the field early next week by eliminating firms that appear inadequate for the job, then give the others a "due diligence" period to inspect schools individually.
Beth Lourgand, general manager of the district's facilities and services, told the committee she would consult with legal counsel to determine whether other firms should be allowed 45 days, rather than the 30 initially promised, because the Energy Alliance had six weeks for its study.
Once the final proposals are submitted, Lourgand's staff will cut the list to three for consideration by the committee.
The committee's recommendation will be forwarded to the school board which will make the final decision.