Landfill Contract Goes to Northern Alaska, Amid Debate

Wednesday, August 27 2014

Unalaska’s construction companies turned out in force Tuesday night to hear city council take up longstanding issues with contracting.

The council delved into their criteria for selecting contractors, and debated who to hire for one controversial job: the landfill expansion.

Council had awarded the contract to Northern Alaska Contractors earlier this year, but they scrapped the agreement after a complication at the worksite.

Northern Alaska asked for $2.3 million extra to deal with the problem: dynamite remnants, found in a pile of rock. But city staff said that was too expensive, and opted to cancel the contract.

This time, the city received five bids for the project -- and as before, Northern Alaska’s came in lowest. At $3.6 million, it was even less than their original proposal. The next lowest offer came from Advanced Blasting, but that company’s not in good standing with the city. They’re being blamed for leaving dynamite behind after completing a different job.

The debate on the landfill contract came after council agreed they want to expand their options for choosing companies other than the lowest bidders. Councilors said city code needs more flexibility to reject contractors who’ve done shoddy work or who’ve asked for too many extra payments in the past.

Those issues have come up with the two lowest bidders on the landfill contract -- but council couldn’t approve any code changes at Tuesday’s meeting. The ordinance has to go first to a public hearing, now scheduled for early September.

Bill Shaishnikoff of Bering Shai Gravel offered public testimony on the landfill contract Tuesday night, saying council should wait to award it until after the new code gets approved.

"Put it back out to bid in 30 days -- a 30-day timeline, very quick. In that timeframe, this document -- this ironclad, bulletproof document we are working on -- will have been signed into law, before those bids come about," Shaishnikoff said. "That’s what I think we should do, not just jump on the low bid right now."

He questioned whether awarding the contract now would get the project done any faster. The city’s already expecting work to stretch into next year, after delays from the dynamite discovery.

But Northern Alaska owner Archie Stepp said if his company got the contract, they might be able to restart work as early as this fall.

Stepp doesn’t often comment publicly on his company’s proposals. But he did address the council Tuesday night. He said Northern Alaska was able to shave down its bid because they had already completed some of the project. They're still negotiating payment for that work with the city, according to city manager Chris Hladick.

Northern Alaska's new bid also didn’t include their initial cost proposal for cleaning up the dynamite at the work site. Stepp said it isn't going to be as expensive as they’d thought.

"When the explosives were found at the landfill, we asked for direction as to what to do," he said. "And we came back with the worst-case scenario, of if we had to sift through every rock to find all the explosives."

But councilor Dennis Robinson wasn’t convinced. Even without passing the more specific set of guidelines for rejecting low bidders, he argued they could still consider factors like "integrity -- the quality of being honest and fair," Robinson said. "Is that exorbitant $2.3 million dollar change order honest, and is it fair? No -- in my opinion, absolutely not."

Robinson has previously told KUCB he’s no longer willing to consider contracts with Northern Alaska, or its parent company, Northern Mechanical. Robinson was the lone ‘no’ vote on giving Northern Alaska the contract at Tuesday's meeting -- it passed, 4 to 1.

Though contracting was in the spotlight Tuesday, council also took time to establish their lobbying priorities for the next fiscal year. They agreed to ask for state and federal funding to cover dredging in Unalaska Bay, improvements to Captain’s Bay Road and a pilot project to test liquid natural gas as an energy source for the city.

Mayor Shirley Marquardt also led a discussion about council’s travel reports. She said some councilors had been submitting write-ups that were late, vague or incomplete.

"So what I’m looking for, for the public, is: What did we do when we were there? What did we spend our money on?" Marquardt said. "And that’s the difference."

Councilors suggested changing the policy so they couldn’t travel unless they were up to date on trip reports. Marquardt said she would bring that change back for a vote at a future meeting.

Council convenes next on Sept. 9.

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