School officials didn't want plumbing contractor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Lawrence A. Snoops sits on the state board that regulates Maryland plumbers. But Howard County school officials say they didn't want his firm to bid on the plumbing contract for the new River Hill High School in Columbia.

They say his company, Collins-Snoops & Associates Inc., had fallen behind schedule on three earlier jobs for the school system -- which did not bode well given the new high school's tight construction schedule.

But, school officials say, they had no choice but to award Mr. Snoops the plumbing job in January 1993: His firm was the low bidder, and they had no way to disqualify him.

Very quickly, though, school officials' fears came to pass.

Mr. Snoops' company got behind schedule at River Hill, potentially causing costly delays in the work of other subcontractors on the project. Some of the Snoops company's plumbing work had to be redone, and some of its work resulted in potentially dangerous violations of the county plumbing code, according to a school system consultant.

By last October, school officials finally succeeded in persuading the Cockeysville contractor to withdraw from the project. But that was after the school system was left with an estimated $1.15 million in unanticipated plumbing costs -- part of an overall cost overrun on the River Hill project that has grown to about $2 million.

The overrun came to light Sept. 19 when the County Council had to approve a fund transfer to the school system to cover the additional costs. Mr. Snoops and the school system now are negotiating over responsibility for the plumbing problems at River Hill, and they may be headed toward a legal battle.

Mr. Snoops -- the son of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's close friend Hilda Mae Snoops -- is a Schaefer appointee to the eight-member state Board of Plumbing that regulates the plumbing trade and examines and certifies plumbers. In the River Hill dispute, there is no indication he received the school contract because of political connections.

But the quality of his company's work on the project contrasts with Mr. Snoops' position on the state plumbing board. At the very least, it illustrates a possible flaw in the bidding process used widely by Maryland public agencies: A low bid isn't always the best bid.

"For a public agency to reject a low bid, it's going to have to come up with some very substantial reasons for doing that," such as failing to complete a project, said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Snoops attributed the plumbing cost overruns at River Hill to changes made after his company left the project. He said he wasn't aware of any plumbing code violations at the school.

He said a news article about his company's problems at River Hill would "only muddy the waters" of his negotiations with school officials. And he maintained those talks should result in more money for him from the school system, saying: "The amount of money we're looking for coming to us would end the whole thing and make it go away."

Over the years, poor performance by contractors hasn't been much of an issue for the Howard school system, which has had a solid record of building schools on time and under budget. River Hill -- which opened in August despite construction problems -- is the first county school in more than five years to incur cost overruns. Originally planned to open in 1997, River Hill's construction schedule was tightened so it could provide classroom space for students displaced this school year when Wilde Lake High School was torn down to make way for another new high school.

The accelerated construction schedule worried school officials when Mr. Snoops bid on the River Hill project because he had problems meeting deadlines on earlier projects at two county elementary schools and one county middle school.

"He never failed to perform in a major way, but he was not someone you wanted to hire if you had a big job you were going to move in a hurry," said William Brown, director of school construction and planning.

Mr. Snoops' $1.7 million bid for the plumbing contract was the lowest by more than $100,000. But he quickly ran into trouble on the project.

"As the work was in progress, we noticed for whatever reason, they were having trouble keeping up with the schedule -- endangering the possible completion of the project on time," Mr. Cousin said.

Much of the other construction work at River Hill could not begin until its plumbing was in place -- posing the possibility of cost escalations and delay claims by other subcontractors against the school system, which was serving as the project's general contractor.

Eight months into the project, school officials began getting warning letters from some of the project's 33 subcontractors, saying they might increase their charges because of plumbing delays.

"Be advised that due to the nonperformance of your plumbing contractor, we are unable to maintain our work schedule," concrete subcontractor Daniel B. Schuster told school officials in an Aug. 4, 1993, letter. "If the plumbing work is not completed immediately, this delay will require us to spend additional money due to decreased productivity, and could make it necessary [to do more work later] which will result in additional charges."

Recalled Mr. Brown, the school construction director: "From the beginning, we were having problems [with the Snoops company]. . . . They were not well-organized, their manpower was low, and we spent a lot of time baby-sitting."

Moreover, signs of poor workmanship began to crop up, Mr. Brown said. They included drains that went uphill, drains that weren't connected to anything and unauthorized substitution of less expensive materials, such as cast iron for copper.

"This was not the first building we've done and they've done," Mr. Brown said. "We shouldn't have had these problems."

By April 1993, school officials began attempting to get Mr. Snoops to withdraw from the project. His workers left the site in mid-September, and his firm "voluntarily withdrew" from the project under an Oct. 13, 1993, agreement, school officials said. Court action was not an option at the time, Mr. Cousin said, because it would have brought the project to a halt.

Meanwhile, a consultant hired by the school system was turning up safety problems related to Mr. Snoops' company's work.

An Oct. 7, 1993, report from the consultant, James Posey and Associates, noted that hanger rods used to support sewer, water and gas pipes were too small and too few. "This needs to be corrected immediately, since work is proceeding under this piping," the report said. "This is a dangerous condition." The words "immediately" and "This is a dangerous condition" were underscored.

Later reports by the consultant indicated some plumbing equipment had been installed in the wrong places. A vent to allow the escape of radon gas, a potential carcinogen, had not been installed, requiring a concrete slab to be drilled open. Another area needed to be excavated to locate a missing storm water main.

River Hill's plumbing problems are still being assessed, even after the school has opened. "We're still going over errors," Mr. Cousin said. "A lot of it is correcting things that were different than the drawings showed. We're still debating about what is attributable to Snoops and what is common practice."

So far, the school system has spent $1.15 million more than it planned for plumbing, including $350,000 paid to Mr. Snoops' company. The rest of the cost overrun came from $500,000 paid to another company to complete the plumbing work and $300,000 more to redo work.

Despite the extra costs and the potential for a legal battle, Mr. Cousin maintained that "the system worked. We were able to get rid of a contractor who was not performing and still open the school on time."

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