Unions question MJC building bid

Labor groups are raising questions about the winning bid package a general contractor submitted to build a $70 million science center at Modesto Junior College.

More than 70 carpenters and their families packed Wednesday night's Yosemite Community College District board of trustees meeting to protest the choice of Brown Construction of West Sacramento to build the Science Community Center on MJC's West Campus.

Carpenters unions claim Brown Construction erred on its bid package, giving it an unfair advantage to come in as the lowest bidder, at $35.2 million. Public agencies must accept the lowest bidder.

An attorney for Brown Construction told trustees the unions are misreading the requirements for bidding.

The next two lowest bidders were Broward Builders of Woodland ($35.5 million) and Lathrop Construction of the Bay Area ($35.9 million). Seventeen companies competed for the project, a higher than normal number that reflects the construction industry's thirst for work.

When bidding, general contractors submit packages detailing subcontractors they will use and how much it will cost them to build projects according to architectural plans.

According to two Northern California carpenters unions, Brown Construction listed a projector for the Science Community Center's planetarium that wasn't specified in the bid package, lowering its total bid by $1 million.

It also listed a structural steel framer with less than 10 years' experience; the bid called for one with a license at least a decade old.

"Because of these, Brown gained a large competitive advantage," said Samantha Draper, a researcher for Carpenters Local 152, which represents 2,200 workers and families in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. "They are skirting the bid specifics. And the perception could be that there's favoritism."

Draper's group monitors bidding procedures, and she said she's never had an issue with other Measure E projects. Measure E is a $326 million bond approved by voters in 2004 to pay for construction and renovation projects at MJC and Columbia College.

Attorney Frank Perrott defended Brown, saying its bid was appealed by carpenters unions, and YCCD staff denied the appeal in April.

"The time to protest the bid is long gone," Perrott said.

Because Brown was given a verbal nod for the science center, it purchased $265,000 in bonds and insurance, Perrott said, but he acknowledged that the verbal agreement was not legally binding.

YCCD staff will review the allegations and bidding process and bring information back to trustees, who could confirm Brown Construction as the choice, pick the next lowest bidder or put the science center project out for a re-bid.