Ride the Rails, Pay the Price

For some Dade County commissioners money is no object when it comes to keeping Wackenhut on the public payroll

To private security companies, the county contract for guard service along Metrorail and the Metromover reads like a dream. The five-year deal calls for more than 150 guards, and is valued at anywhere from five to six million dollars per year. With the expansion of the Metromover, security duties will likely grow in the next few years. It's no wonder, then, that so many top-flight firms are battling for the job. And no wonder that awarding the contract has become the bureaucratic equivalent of a major train wreck.

The contract first became a hot issue in 1988, when high crime and low ridership led to the dismissal of one guard service and the eventual hiring of Wackenhut, the security giant based in Coral Gables. By all accounts Wackenhut did a good job on the rail. In June of 1992, in fact, members of the county commission's transportation committee considered extending Wackenhut's contract without requesting bids from other firms, but relented on the advice of the county attorney.

The commission was therefore left to consider how to rebid the contract, which expired in December 1992. At a special meeting of the transportation committee in July 1992, Commissioner Art Teele argued for a Request for Proposal (RFP), in which the commission chooses a winner based on plans submitted by each interested company, regardless of the price to taxpayers. Wackenhut officials favored this method because it would allow Teele and the rest of the commission to choose them even if their bid price was not the lowest. But at the committee meeting Victor Monzon-Aguirre, director of Dade's General Services Administration, urged commissioners to issue an Invitation to Bid (ITB), in which the county sets out criteria and the lowest qualified bidder automatically wins the contract. Wackenhut's competitors lobbied vigorously for the ITB process.

After a lengthy and at times combative exchange, Teele directed Monzon-Aguirre to discuss the bid process with members of the Metro-Dade Transit Authority and to come back to the committee with a recommendation, preferably one endorsing an RFP. Realizing this added work might delay the bid process, committee chairman Charles Dusseau asked Murray Levine, Wackenhut's vice president of the South Florida region, whether his company could extend its contract for a few months if necessary. "As an accommodation, we'll extend the contract for two years if you like," Levine joked. The gallery broke up laughing.

Nearly two years later, nobody is laughing. Except maybe Levine, whose quip has proved prophetic.

Today the county stands no closer to awarding the Metrorail security contract than it did in July 1992. The delay appears to be the product of a monumental miscommunication between the county's elected officials and its administration. As usual, Hurricane Andrew is receiving much of the opprobrium. The disaster, which struck a month after the July 1992 meeting, had two dramatic effects on the Metrorail security contract: First, it led county staff to delay the bidding process nearly a full year; second, it apparently caused county staff to either forget or disregard the mandate that they return to the transportation committee with a recommendation regarding the RFP process.

Hal Johnson, Dade's head of procurement, says his department is not to blame. "Obviously someone didn't go back and report to the commission," he notes. "But the staff of the Metro Dade Transit Authority came to me and told me he wanted an invitation to bid. My job at that point is to prepare the ITB. I figure it's already signed off on." GSA director Monzon-Aguirre, Johnson's boss, says he doesn't recall being involved in any such decision.

Frank Martin, assistant director of rail operations for the Metro-Dade Transit Authority, remembers the decision to prepare an Invitation to Bid a bit differently. "The contract had gone out as an invitation to bid before," Martin says, "and procurement felt strongly that it should go out as an invitation again. But it was a joint decision between MDTA, GSA, and the Dade Department of Facilities Management."

Whatever the scenario, the net result is that an ITB was sent out in October 1993, nearly a year after the expiration of Wackenhut's contract and apparently without the knowledge of Dade County commissioners. A half-dozen firms bid for the contract. All attended a lengthy prebid conference and a mandatory inspection of every site to be guarded. "We went through our specs page by page with every one of these companies to make sure they were qualified," procurement chief Hal Johnson says. The entire evaluating process took nearly three months.

This past January 24 County Manager Joaquin Avi*o issued a memo recommending Burns Security, one of the nation's largest security firms, as the lowest responsive bidder. The company's bid came in at $4.9 million per year. Two other firms placed second and third, with Wackenhut fourth at $5.8 million. (Currently Wackenhut charges the county six million dollars per year.) "It should be noted that the county's Invitation to Bid process was developed in the precise manner of services being provided by the Wackenhut Corporation presently," Avi*o stressed in his memo.

The recommendation was addressed at a meeting of the commission's internal management committee the same day. After strenuous objections by Wackenhut and other losing bidders, internal management kicked the issue back to the transportation committee. At a March 24 meeting of the transportation committee Monzon-Aguirre and Teele again locked horns. "If you know what you want, you use an invitation to bid," Monzon-Aguirre explained. "We established a standard, and Wackenhut met that standard. We are not changing those standards. It's just that the market has improved. We have more vendors." He cited the rigorous specifications for the contract, which runs 82 pages single-spaced and requires that all guards be graduates of a law-enforcement academy and have a minimum of three years' experience as a military or civilian police officer.

Teele was unmoved. "We are not buying guns here," he lectured Monzon-Aguirre. "We are not even buying man-hours. This is about extending the county's image. Every one of these [guards] is an ambassador." He then made a motion to recommend to the full commission that the existing bids be thrown out and an RFP issued. The motion passed unanimously -- despite the objections of lobbyists representing Wackenhut's competitors.

"Look, a mistake was made," Teele concluded. "It's a simple matter. There's no reason to drag it out. The only people benefiting from this are the lawyers and lobbyists. I heard a rumor that this issue is going back to the internal management committee. If it does, I tell you this is going to end up being the Lawyer and Lobbyists Relief Act."

Sure enough, two weeks later, when the issue came before the full commission, it was sent back to internal management at the urging of Commissioner Sherman Winn. Winn's committee is tentatively scheduled to hear the issue in early May. They are expected to recommend to the full commission that all bids be thrown out and the RFP process begin. The commission would most likely adopt that plan at their next meeting. Should this happen, county staff anticipates that the contract will be extended another 90 days at minimum.

"The real issue here is public safety, not dollars," says Wackenhut's Murray Levine, who is pleased with the turn of events. "You've got a situation where tourists don't want to come to Miami because they are being maimed and murdered. This is not just another guard job. And Wackenhut isn't just another guard service."

The competition, meanwhile, is furious. "We won this thing fair and square," says Burns district manager Henry Sturm. "And we're frankly befuddled by what appears to be favoritism toward this local giant. Do we have a chance of winning the RFP with Wackenhut in the running? At this point, who knows?"

Commissioners Art Teele and Miguel de la Portilla, current chairman of the transportation committee, scoff at the notion that Wackenhut has unduly influenced the bidding process. "Anybody alleging a relationship between myself and Wackenhut is trying to create a nonissue," Teele fumes. "My position on this has been the same for two years: This isn't just a security contract, it's a customer service/security contract. That's what nobody on the transit side has figured out. We want quality over price, meaning the bid should have gone out as an RFP. If staff had done it right in the first place, we wouldn't have to do it again.

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