A construction bid that came in 76 percent lower than what city leaders expected has raised a red flag for the local electrical workers union.
The Highland City Council voted 3-0 on Monday (Councilman Aaron Schwarz was absent) to award a contract to National Erectors & Builders (NEB) to bury electric lines as part of a larger project to reconstruct Sportsman Road from Plaza Drive to Frank Watson Parkway. Highland-based NEB was the low bidder of four companies, with a $131,900 bid.
NEB’s bid was $34,553 lower than Electrico Inc., which said it could do the work for $166,453.
J.F. Electric and J&R Appliance also submitted bids, saying they could perform the work for $243,450 and $478,732, respectively.
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Dan Cook, the city’s Light and Power director, projected in February the project might cost $550,000 to complete. Cook was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 309 business manager Tim Evans questioned how NEB could afford such a price, if the company intended to pay workers the local prevailing wage rate, which is more than $38 per hour for electrical workers, according to the Illinois Department of Labor.
By law, the city is required to award a bid to the lowest qualified bidder. It is up to the city to determine who is a “qualified bidder.” It is also the law that contractors must pay prevailing wage on government projects.
Evans said Local 309 filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the city last week, seeking the city’s payroll records for the past 12 months to see if contractors have been paying prevailing wages. Evans said on Tuesday he still has also not heard back from the city regarding the FOIA request. By law, the city has five working days to respond to a FOIA request.
Highland City Manager Mark Latham said the city will supply Local 309 with the data that it requested. However, he saw no problems with the city’s bid-selection process.
Latham said Local 309 had tried to contact his office before the City Council opened the Sportsman Road project bids on March 25.
Latham said he believes Local 309 is upset because two of the companies that have union workers, Eletrico Inc. and J.F. Electric, were not chosen for the project.
Ben Kunz, president of NEB, said his business has worked with the city on a number of projects in the past eight years. Unlike his competitors, Kunz said he was able to submit his bid based on his low overhead costs.
“I have only 10 employees,” he said.
Kunz said he will pay the prevailing wage for this project and might hire subcontractors with IBEW workers.
He said Local 309 has “no legs to stand on” with its complaint.
“They just don’t like me,” he said. “And now they are trying to diminish my character.”
Kunz said this project might be the largest he has ever had with the city. In the past, he has worked on City Hall and in the city parks, he said.
“I most recently installed the lights at Korte Rec Plex,” he said.
Underground power lines make up about 18 percent of U.S. transmission lines, according to the federal Energy Information Agency (EIA).
Nearly all new residential and commercial developments have underground electric service, the agency said. But EIA noted that underground power lines cost five to 10 times more than overhead wires, don’t last as long and cost more to replace.
“The cost of underground power lines is significant — up to five to 10 times more than overhead distribution lines,” EIA spokesman Jonathan Cogan said.
Cook, the city’s Light and Power director, had advocated in a Feb. 25 memo to council members for underground lines because, “the resiliency of an underground installation is superior to overhead lines.”