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Merced County's housing panel votes to give delayed farmworker project to West Sacramento firm

The Merced County Housing Authority awarded a multimillion-dollar construction contract to a West Sacramento-based firm, despite pleas from area builders to keep the money local.

After a three-hour meeting, with two closed sessions, a flip-flop vote and pressure from the state to move on, the authority's commission decided 6-1 to have Brown Construction build the Felix Torres Farmworker Housing Center in Planada.

Commissioners Tom May, Joe Ramirez, Margaret Warmack, Maria Lucio, Mary Stillahn and Charles Reyburn all voted to hire Brown Construction, saying that federal regulations limited their freedom to chose a firm.

Patrick Bowman dissented. (Bowman is facing criminal charges after the collapse of a nonprofit, Firm Build, that got funding from the Housing Authority. Bowman served as president on the nonprofit's board.)

The migrant center, already controversial and running behind schedule, has been one of the top priorities of the Housing Authority, charged with providing low-income housing. It's projected to be built in about a year.

Greg Opinski Construction workers, wearing blue jeans, muddy boots and T-shirts, spilled into the hallway as their boss asked the commission to hire his company.

"We'd like to put some faces behind the name Greg Opinski Construction," Greg Opinski said. "We are a perfect fit for these type of projects. I've just never understood sending jobs out of town."

Though big jobs always draw bids, they've become more competitive and contentious as the amount of work has dwindled.

A handful of subcontractors, who've all seen fellow builders lose their jobs, echoed the same point.

"Work is scarce," Creative Plumbing estimator Ron Gilbert said, adding the shop has shrunk from 46 plumbers to eight.

While the board discussed who to hire behind closed doors, Bob Asmus, Opinski's business development director, made his case for why it's foolish to hire the West Sacramento company:

The sales tax won't stay local, most of the workers won't be from Merced County and the salaries won't be pumped back into local businesses.

Workers rapped about how money going out of town will only cause more foreclosures and increase unemployment.

Opinski put in a $15.4 million bid in August. The Housing Authority's work request was based on a qualifications, not just the lowest bidder for the job. He argued it gives the board leeway in who to hire.

The board opened its doors an hour-and-a-half later. About a dozen workers remained to hear the commissioners' vote.

May made a motion to approve the award. It failed 3-4, only gaining the support of May, Reyburn and Warmack.

Bowman said the board should either rebid the project or take another look at all the proposals.

Arturo Rodriguez, with the California Office of Migrant Services, said any delays could doom the center. "I cannot guarantee the funding will be there," he said. "We've delayed this too many times. You're asking trouble with the state."

The commission went back into closed session, reopening about a half-hour later.

They voted unanimously to reconsider giving the award to Brown Construction. Then they voted again. Everyone, except Bowman, voted in favor of the contract.

Lucio said she changed her vote because she wasn't thinking about the people who would benefit from the camp.

"If we do not decide this today, we'll likely lose the funds," Ramirez said, later adding that they'll put heavy pressure on Brown to hire local workers and subcontractors.

Federal regulations tied the commission's hands, he said, urging them to contact legislators so that the rules can give local firms an advantage. "I know how much this would help you guys, said Ramirez, a manager with County Bank. "I know it would help us."

Opinski will understand why the other company got the job once the scoring reports become public, he said. They weren't immediately available.

As the workers walked out to their trucks, one muttered, "They better keep building (low-income) houses because I'm going to be in one soon."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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