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Baltimore spends $13M more for water meter project

City throws out low bid on water infrastructure work after forms changed with Wite-Out

Baltimore's Board of Estimates voted Wednesday to spend $13 million to perform "urgent" repairs to the city's water system infrastructure — the latest additional cost in the installation of new meters for the city's 400,000 water customers.

The board members, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, voted 4-1 to award two contracts totaling $9.5 million to Metra Industries Inc. of Little Falls, N.J., for the work fixing problems discovered during the systemwide upgrade to wireless water meters. The other money will be used for administrative costs, city officials said.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt voted against the deal, saying she favored the low bids from Baltimore-based R.E Harrington Plumbing & Heating Inc. that would save the city about $1.5 million. That company was disqualified for using Wite-Out to make changes on its bid forms to the amount it planned to pay its subcontractors without getting the subcontractors to place their initials by the changes.

Rawlings-Blake said the city has to abide by its own rules that forbid contractors from changing bid documents concerning subcontractors without getting their approval.

"The fact that this stands to cost us $1.5 million more pains me," Rawlings-Blake said. "I would have liked for nothing more for that change to be documented correctly so we wouldn't be in this position. … But the answer isn't to ignore it or pretend like it didn't happen."

In 2013, city officials awarded an $83.5 million contract to Itron Inc. of Washington state to install meters for a wireless meter system to serve the system's thousands of customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County. Rawlings-Blake has said the upgrade is part of an effort to end "outrageous" water bill mistakes that have infuriated residents and forced the city to issue millions of dollars in refunds.

The Itron bid was about $100 million less than a competitor's. Young and Pratt said they planned to watch the project closely to make sure costs did not rise over time.

The Board of Estimates has already authorized $9.7 million more to hire contractor EMA Inc. to "ensure that the program moves forward efficiently and expeditiously," and $8.4 million to hire Belgian company Itineris to overhaul the water-billing system, which connects to the new meters. And, the city has alloted $36 million for the purchase of the new meters. 

The latest contracts bring the total cost of the project to about $145 million.

Robert Fulton Dashiell, an attorney representing Harrington, said throwing out the lower bid on the latest contract is hurting minority contractors. He said it's common practice for subcontractors to sign their names to blank forms that the main contractor then fills in for them. He said main contractors don't always have quick access to their subcontractors to sign off on changes that amount to merely technical fixes.

"I recognize there is a rule," Dashiell said. "I also recognize that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. … It's a matter of doing what's right."

City officials say additional contractors are needed to deal with time-consuming construction situations that are arising during the overhaul, thereby freeing up Itron to install meters. City officials want Itron to finish installing the new meters by 2017.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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