BOSTON -- A chairman of a state legislative committee said Wednesday he is hopeful the Legislature will pass a bill this year making it illegal for housing authorities and other public agencies to complete large-scale construction projects without a public-bidding process.
Two other members of the committee, including Rep. David Nangle of Lowell, told The Sun they plan to support Rep. Peter Kocot's legislation that would prevent projects like the Lowell Housing Authority's $6 million no-bid renovations at North Common Village.
Instead of seeking bids for the work, the LHA turned to local union labor, known as "force-account" labor, to work on the multi-million dollar project.
Kocot's bill to limit force account work was filed after the LHA problems, including 132 units being renovated without permits, were publicized.
"Where you have millions of dollars being stockpiled and used in a perhaps inappropriate manner, those are the type of examples we are trying to get at," said Kocot, a Northampton Democrat and the House chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.
"The ultimate goal is to protect the health and safety of housing-authority residents, while protecting taxpayers and businesses with sound procurement laws.
The legislation as currently drafted, which was one of a number of bills the committee Kocot chairs held a public hearing on Wednesday, would make it illegal for public agencies to bypass public-construction bid laws for any construction costing $100,000 or more.
The legislation would only allow work without bids on construction costing less than $100,000 if it was emergency construction or repairs to address any immediate and significant threat to employees of a public agency or the agency's tenants.
The penalties for violating the prohibition against skirting bids for larger projects or ordinary repairs would be imprisonment of not more than six months, a fine of not more than $2,000, or imprisonment and a fine.
Nangle said he is very supportive of Kocot's proposal, which he said is especially important because of the many different investigations and questions the LHA's no-bid projects have prompted.
"I think it is a great idea in light of some of the questions surrounding an ongoing serious situation with our own housing authority," said Nangle, a Democrat. "I think this could be the answer because it could stop a situation like this from happening again. I think this would eliminate any gray area or wiggle room."
Nangle said he planned to talk to Kocot in the coming days about the bill and see what he could do to help move it along.
While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allows housing authorities to use force-account labor, federal auditors found last year that the LHA failed to seek cost estimates or keep detailed records so it could not ensure that more than $9.2 million spent on 14 force-account projects from 2008 to 2012 was cost effective. The spending the LHA can't justify will have to be repaid to the federal government.
Special agents from the Office of Inspector General for HUD are currently investigating the LHA's handling of building projects and have asked some of those interviewed what the LHA's motivations were for performing no-bid work.
State Rep. Keiko Orrall, a Lakeville Republican on Kocot's committee, also said she supports the push to limit no-bid construction by housing authorities. When told of what took place at the Lowell Housing Authority, Orrall said, "It is unbelievable to me."
"I think the taxpayers need to have a more transparent process of all procurement, and we need to make sure we are getting the best use of taxpayer dollars," Orrall said.
State Rep. Kevin Murphy, another Lowell Democrat, agreed force-account work should be examined in light of the recent controversy surrounding it in Lowell. He said both the positives and negatives of the practice should be weighed.
"There is always a positive to public bidding, but also there are delays when it comes to public bidding, so sometimes the force accounts are better when you are handling emergencies," said Murphy, an attorney who handles labor issues for the LHA.
While there was no public testimony in opposition or support of the legislation Wednesday, Kocot's legislation has secured the support of the Associated Subcontractors of Massachusetts, which represents both union and open-shop subcontractors.
Monica Lawton, chief executive officer of the group, said she could not attend the hearing, but she submitted a brief summary of the group's strong support of the legislation to the committee.
"Not only does such practice circumvent the public-bidding laws and eliminate competitive bidding, it also eliminates proper oversight and increases the likelihood of performance problems and cost issues, as evidenced by the experience in Lowell on recent Housing Authority projects," Lawton wrote of force-account labor.
Kocot said he is currently working with the state Inspector General's Office to fine-tune the bill. As part of the review process, Kocot said an analysis is being conducted on the use of force account by housing authorities statewide.
One revision to the bill being considered is linking the dollar limit on force-account activity to the number of units a housing authority oversees. Kocot also said he is working with the IG's Office on the bill's language in light of federal regulations allowing housing authorities to use force-account labor.
"We are trying to make sure what we come up with allows some flexibility for emergency repairs," Kocot added.
Ellen Silberman, a spokeswoman for Inspector General Glenn Cunha, declined to comment on the legislation.
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