After talking with six companies that sell the specific kind of street light purchased by the city of Mobile in 2011 using federal grant money, it appears the city overpaid by nearly $500 per light.
That information comes on the heels of accusations Lagniappe has previously reported that the city crafted a request for quotes (RFQ) so that only that particular model of light could be chosen.
The selection process for a $1.2 million lighting contract, which was funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant, began in 2011 when the city issued a RFQ on Aug. 22. Bids submitted ranged from $355.35 to $1,193 per LED light, but the work went to the second highest bidder on the list.
WESCO Distribution, which bid $1,070 per light, was awarded the contract for a Cooper Ventus LED light. The city ended up buying and installing 1,144 lights, which meant WESCO Distribution was paid $1,224,080 for the project, according to city and federal records.
Now it seems the amount the city paid for the Cooper Ventus light was over $500 per light than what was paid by other cities. Lagniappe contacted six companies that sell Cooper Lights and all gave estimate quotes between $613 and just more than $650 for the same light the city purchased at a cost of $1,070 apiece. If the city had bought the lights at an average price it would have saved roughly $500,000.
The companies consulted were Wells-Keown Associates in Harahan, La.; Tennessee Lighting Sales in Nashville, Tenn.; Tampa Bay Lighting in Tampa, Fla.; Premier Lighting in Greer, S.C.; Illumination Systems in Denver, Colo. and Southern California Illumination in Del Mar, Calif.
Lagniappe also asked the same companies if they had ever heard of the Cooper Ventus LED light selling for $1,070 and each said no.
“Tell me where I can sell (the Cooper Ventus) for $1,000 and I’ll be there,” joked Illumination Systems’ Lidia Mendez.
Chubbuck, Idaho recently used Cooper Ventus LED lights in a city project. However, Chubbuck City Clerk Richard Morgan said the city didn’t pay nearly $1,070 for the light, but was unsure of the price per light.
A person familiar with the bidding process but who wished to remain nameless explained how the light prices can vary.
“Cooper has specific sellers for their lights in markets. Those companies can sell to other companies who can then sell those lights,” the person said. “That’s why WESCO could sell the lights although they are not the dealers in Mobile.”
The company that sells for this area according the Cooper website is Lighting Solutions.
“The company who is selling the lights can mark up the price as much as it can,” the anonymous source said. “You can theoretically sell the light for as much as the person is willing to pay for it.”
Multiple attempts to contact Lighting Solutions were unsuccessful.
Lagniappe asked the city if they had checked the $1,070 price tag against what other cities paid for the same light.
“We did not contact any other cities or companies specifically about the Cooper fixture. During the two-year pilot program we contacted a few places about their general experience with LED street lights,” said city Traffic Engineering Director Jennifer White via email.
Even before the city seemingly paid an exorbitant amount for the light, the RFQ itself raised many questions from people who bid on the project.
In reviewing the RFQ, it appears to have been written in a way that would be consistent with purchasing an item based on proprietary qualifications rather than performance. A proprietary RFQ can only be used under specific conditions, according to state and federal law. Most of those specifications deal with safety issues, but those do not apply to the restrictive requirements used in this RFQ. A proprietary RFQ is so specific it essentially ensures an exact make, model or manufacturer will win the bid.
For example, under a proprietary RFQ for police vehicles, a person writing the RFQ could copy and paste the specifications from a vehicle like a Dodge Charger. Then, any company bidding something other than that specific car would not be able to meet the exact requirements such as weight and abilities. Thus the Dodge Charger would have to be selected.
The RFQ for the LED lights appears to have been treated this way by the city, as several lower bids were kicked out because they did not meet some very specific criteria.
According to the city RFQ, the light selected needed to “meet or exceed a 2-foot-candle average radius,” be able to be spaced out 150-feet along the road, weigh no more than 50-pounds and have a specific maximum effective projected area of “1.44-square-feet.” Several of the lights bid met or exceeded the 2-foot-candle average radius requirement, and were lower in price, but were not selected.
The requirement that the light have an effective area of exactly 1.44-square-feet appears to have ensured only the Cooper light selected could have been chosen. The effective projected area (EPA) is in reference to how much wind the light can withstand. Being that Mobile often deals with hurricane-force winds, this is important. However, the RFQ states the EPA should be specifically 1.44-square-feet. It does not state it should meet or exceed, which would could eliminate a cheaper light that could actually withstand more wind.
Lagniappe asked city officials who wrote the bid specifications and who was involved in the selection process. Multiple sources told Lagniappe up to four people were involved and in an earlier interview, city attorney Larry Wettermark told Lagniappe there were “several people from several departments involved in the selection process.”
However, White said the opposite.
“Doug Davis wrote the bid,” she said via email. “I do not know of four people who were involved in the selection process. Doug Davis reviewed the bids and made the recommendation.”
White did confirm reports that Davis had gone to Cooper’s facility, in Atlanta, Ga., during the bid process.
“Doug Davis drove to the manufacturing site and back in one day, but I do not know when in the process,” she said.
Requests for an interview or comment from Davis were not granted before press time.