Library Board Seeks To Skip Bid Process For New Berlin Branch

BERLIN — A request from the Worcester County Library Board of Trustees to waive the competitive bidding requirements for a new Berlin library branch was tabled Tuesday by the Worcester County Commission for two weeks.

While the commission was open to the idea of directly hiring architect Jeff Schoellkopf, many commissioners also admitted that they were uncomfortable with the idea of skipping competitive bidding for a taxpayer-funded project.

A new Berlin library has been in the works for years. The property that houses the current facility is actually owned by the Berlin Fire Company, and the building was constructed in the 1970s. A fresh, county-owned site has recently been acquired and the Board of Trustees believes that they have also found the ideal architect in Jeff Schoellkopf. The board asked the county for approval of $340,000 in initial service costs plus reimbursable expenses.

“I have yet to find anybody, except for Mr. Schoellkopf, with these kinds of qualifications that the board is looking for,” said Ron Cascio, president of the Board of Trustees.

When Cascio was asked if there are any other architects that could bring the same mix of skills, experience and flavor to the project, he responded that Schoellkopf appears to be truly and uniquely suited to the library project.

“In this area, in this community where we want to keep this money, my answer is no,” said Cascio. “And I’m sad to say that.”

Nobody on the commission argued against Schoellkopf’s qualifications, but many of the commissioners remarked that they were at least troubled by the idea of skipping the traditional bidding process. Because the Berlin library will be built with funds generated by taxes, Commissioner Judy Boggs argued that the commission has a responsibility to residents for transparency.

Commission President Bud Church echoed Boggs’ opinion. He told Cascio and Library Director Mark Thomas that he had nothing against their recommendation of Schoellkopf but pointed out that if the commission chose to waive competitive bidding for the project residents might feel that the county isn’t doing its job in searching out the best possible deal.

“I have a concern with not your recommendation, I have a great deal of respect for both of you, but not putting it to bid when we’re using taxpayers’ money is just a concern to me,” Church said. “We open ourselves for criticism saying, ‘What if we could have saved $25,000? What if we could have saved $50,000?’ It is taxpayers’ money and you didn’t give anyone the opportunity.”

While Cascio and Thomas are sure that Schoellkopf is the perfect fit, Church added that other architects in the area would at least expect the opportunity to put their name in the hat. In looking at new designers, the library might actually find something unexpected, said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

“Until you ask you don’t know what you’re going to get … that’s a chunk of change to just take a leap of faith,” he said.

But Cascio and Thomas were adamant that Schoellkopf is the best option. The initial $340,000 being requested in fees, services and engineering costs is reasonably in line with industry prices, according to Thomas. Even if Schoellkopf comes in a few thousand higher than others in a theoretical bid, Thomas argued that the quality of work the library anticipates will mean that the county should save money in the long-term.

“You can be pennywise and pound foolish in terms of design,” Thomas said.

Should the library’s recommendation be taken, Cascio and Thomas believe that the work done will be top-notch and would result in a Berlin library that is energy efficient and poised for decades of use.

For point of reference, the county has waived the competitive bidding process for libraries in the past. With some of the more recent projects bidding was waived for the library in Ocean Pines. It was not waived for the new Ocean City library, however.

If the county chooses to waive bidding this time, Commissioner Jim Purnell predicted that residents will trust the commission’s judgment.

“The tax payers of this county didn’t say a whole lot when we built those two Taj Mahals (libraries), one in Ocean City and one in Ocean Pines,” said Purnell. “So don’t worry about the taxpayers … .I do believe that if we accept the offer that [was] made here today, in good faith, we’ll find in the long-run that the taxpayers will be behind us.”

Instead of making a decision either way, the commission voted unanimously to table the matter for two weeks until the next regular meeting. There are a few points of language within Schoellkopf’s proposal for services that the commissioners felt needed to be clarified, particularly when it comes to how the cost of paying for subcontractors will occur. The commission asked that Cascio and Thomas iron out the proposal’s language and then return for further discussion later this month.