City agency eases limit on informal bids Housing Authority raises ceiling to $100,000 for contracts; Process is 'quicker' U.S. action allows new threshold for nonpublic purchasing


Contracts up to $100,000 for lawyers, engineers, architects and all types of supplies will be awarded by the Baltimore Housing Authority without public announcement under a new policy that quietly has taken effect.

The Housing Authority lifted its limit this fall from $25,000 to $100,000 for seeking competitive bids without advertising -- after being given the right to do so by the federal government.

Under the revised standard, which was approved in September by the agency's governing board over the objections of one member, the Housing Authority only has to request proposals informally from three vendors before awarding a contract.

The policy covers a wide variety of purchases from engineering and other professional services to supplies, including everything from computers to lawn mowers.

It is more liberal than the one followed by most other city agencies. From the education department to the health department, the city routinely solicits formal bids by placing ads in newspapers and trade magazines for contracts of more than $25,000.

Housing chief Daniel P. Henson III defended the move as a practical way to hire consultants or buy required goods on short notice.

When the American Civil Liberties Union filed a housing discrimination lawsuit in January, the agency had little time to find a law firm and had to ask for an exemption to the $25,000 limit because of the high cost of legal work, he said. The agency has spent nearly $600,000 defending itself against the suit, which has been tentatively settled.

"It gives us the basic ability to contract quicker," Mr. Henson said.

But one authority board member questioned raising the threshold, and several City Council members criticized spending greater amounts of public funds without advertised bids.

"Why would we not want to put it in the newspaper and offer everyone a chance to bid on it?" asked Constance Caplan, who serves on the housing board.

Ms. Caplan raised concerns about the proposal when it was introduced in July -- two months after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development notified local housing agencies that they could change their procurement rules to raise the threshold for informal bids to $100,000. The new standard was adopted by three of four board members at the September meeting.

Newly elected Council President Lawrence A. Bell III questioned the timing.

"I do feel we have to be able to move quickly, but we have to make sure that we have safeguards against problems we've had in the past," he said.

Councilman Martin O'Malley, who represents Northeast Baltimore, agreed. "There's a whole pattern of a total disregard of control and accountability," he said.

The Housing Authority has been criticized sharply in the past year for a $25.6 million no-bid program to repair homes quickly. Contractors won millions without competitively bidding for the work from 1991 to 1994, and the initiative has been the focus of a U.S. audit, City Council hearings and a federal corruption investigation.

On Tuesday, a federal jury convicted Larry Jennings Sr. of bribing a housing manager to help win more than $1.18 million in no-bid work. The father of a former authority board member, Jennings faces a maximum 30-year prison term when he returns for sentencing Feb. 16.

Housing officials emphasized that the informal bidding process would be far different from the no-bid program.

Detailed specifications, based on HUD standards, will be developed for each job, said Edward G. Landon, director of the agency's engineering and capital improvements division.

For professional service contracts, the agency will appoint a panel to review the proposals and select a firm, he said.

Housing officials will look for companies by using city lists of approved contractors, federal references, equal opportunity programs, even the Yellow Pages, he said. The agency then will send a detailed request for the services or goods it is seeking, and ask for proposals from at least three companies before choosing one.

But Mr. Landon agreed that the informal process has fewer controls than using advertised bids. He said: "It's all based on

the integrity of how the operation is set up."

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