City awards IT contract, faces late protest against decision
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The City of Fairbanks awarded a contract via resolution for its managed IT services to AlasConnect, LLC. at a cost of $749,942 per year at Monday’s city council meeting on a six to nothing council vote, but not without some friction.
Prior to the council’s vote, one of the companies who submitted a proposal, Vicinity Group, protested the decision on the grounds that they thought the city’s evaluation committee may have made a mistake in how scores were tabulated for the fee category. Those tabulations are part of the decision-making process that precedes the contract going up for council approval.
A three-person evaluation committee of City Chief of Staff Michael Sanders, Dispatch Director Kristi Meredith, and Police Chief Ron Dupee reviewed all the bids in comparison with the city’s needs outlined in the Sept. 29 request for proposals (RFP). They scored the companies in four categories: Services, Qualifications, References and Fee.
Vicinity’s quote for the services came in at $361,920 per year, less than half of AlasConnect’s proposed charge. Vicinity received a score of 16 in the fee category, while AlasConnect received a score of 17.
The quotes each bidder provided were withheld from the committee until they graded the other categories, Sanders told Newscenter Fairbanks in a Nov. 16 interview. The committee then learned the fees and assigned each company a score for that category, as well.
Two of the bidders had comparable final numbers, with AlasConnect receiving a composite score of 86 and Vicinity receiving a composite score of 80. The breakdown for individual categories was as follows:
Services — AlasConnect, 21; Vicinity, 23.
Qualifications—AlasConnect, 25; Vicinity, 20.
References — AlasConnect, 23; Vicinity, 21.
Fee — AlasConnect, 17; Vicinity, 16.
All bidders received a score of zero for a fifth category, Interviews, as no city staff conducted interviews with the IT companies and are not required to as part of the process.
Citing the roughly $380,000 difference in fees between Vicinity and AlasConnect, the protest, authored by Vicinity COO Robert Thurston, reads, “we contest that these scores are both unfair, inaccurate and not in the best interest of the City of Fairbanks.”
According to Sanders, the scores represented neither an inaccuracy nor a mistake. He said Vicinity’s low cost didn’t strike the committee as a bargain for the city, but rather as a “red flag,” and the committee was also hesitant because Vicinity is a relatively new company and does not serve a client the size of the City of Fairbanks.
“The one that came in at half the price was the one that was the least experienced of the three companies … there was a lot of risk,” he said.
Vicinity opened for business in May of this year.
Sanders also explained that the scores for the fee category are more qualitative than quantitative, meaning the quote a bidder gives doesn’t formulaically convert to a given score in the fee category. A lower cost doesn’t necessarily entail a better score for fees, in other words.
Sanders also described how the committee believed IT services for life-saving entities are complicated and not something to take a chance on.
“We have the Emergency Communication Center, which does 911 dispatch for basically the entire Interior region,” he said, continuing, “We’ve got the police station with pretty complex stuff with all their body cams and everything, and the fire department with all their sophisticated equipment.”
Vicinity CFO Samantha Bolanos said, though, that she believes she and her colleagues understood the scope of services and could have been successful. “We are very familiar with the City of Fairbanks,” she said.
“We actually do some IT work currently for the City of Fairbanks. We do some project work. In my previous employment this was a client, and so I kind of understand what their needs are,” Bolanos added.
As for Vicinity’s lower cost, that’s a result of maximizing efficiency, Bolanos explained.
“We coin ourselves a third generation IT provider — just meaning more modern, using all of the modern technology at our disposal. That allows us to be cost efficient,” she said.
In an email, the CFO also said while Vicinity has never served a city with IT support, they do provide managed IT services to 400 users at this time. An addendum to the RFP states the city currently has 192 users on Microsoft 365.
The city’s current contract, which is with AlasConnect, wraps up at the end of this year. The RFP sent out in late September for a new contract garnered the three bidders: AlasConnect, Vicinity Group, and Tech Wise Systems.
An independent IT consultant helped write the RFP to ensure minimum ambiguity regarding the city’s needs. That consultant now works for Vicinity, according to Sanders, though the consultant was not with them during the process of creating the proposal request.
The original RFP shows the due date for proposals as Oct. 20. The city’s purchasing department estimated the final decision date as Oct. 30. The selection arrived three days early, on Oct. 27, with email notifications delivered to representatives for each of the bidders, Sanders said during the Monday council meeting.
Bolanos told Newscenter Fairbanks, however, that she did not receive the original notification of her company’s rejected bid on that day due to a typo.
“I was not communicated with until Nov. 2. Apparently they had emailed the wrong email address -- misspelled my email,” she explained.
Records show the tail end of the her email address was written as “@vivinity.team” instead of “@vicinity.team.”
Bolanos said she called to ask about their proposal, and then received the email saying the city had not chosen to move forward with Vicinity’s bid.
City code states bidders have 10 days to protest a decision of this kind. Vicinity submitted its formal protest on Nov. 13. That’s one day late if using the Nov. 2 email as the start of the timer, or seven days late if using the official Oct. 27 decision date, but late either way.
The email rejecting their bid did not inform Vicinity of the protest deadline of 10 days, however, according to Bolanos. Sanders, with the city, later confirmed that claim with Newscenter Fairbanks, saying the city will aim to better clarify protest periods in future bids. The city, however, has no legal obligation to do so.
The RFP does include a section about rejection, but that section also does not mention the 10-day deadline for protests.
At the Monday council meeting, where the contract was officially awarded using the evaluation committee’s findings, Bolanos spoke during the public comment period to bring Vicinity’s frustrations to the council’s attention. She later told Newscenter Fairbanks that she had called certain members of the city council prior to the meeting, as well.
“I believe this money can be put to better use, and I ask that this be reevaluated,” she said at the meeting, referring to the difference between AlasConnect and Vicinity’s respective quotes for annual costs.
Following Bolanos’ words, Councilmember John Ringstad pulled the resolution from the consent agenda. Had it stayed on the consent agenda, the contract would have been awarded to AlasConnect without any further discussion or a roll call.
Council members then pondered whether the city should further consider the bid that would cost over $380,000 less per year. City Attorney Thomas Chard clarified, though, that the protest period had passed.
“There’s a very prescribed process in our city code for bids, reviewing bids, and it allows for company’s who did not win a bid to protest that bid for 10 days,” he said, adding, “This issue was brought to my attention this afternoon [Nov. 13], and as it happened, the 10 day period has lapsed.”
He went on to suggest that voting down the resolution awarding the contract to AlasConnect would likely restart the RFP and bid process.
In response, councilmember June Rogers asked whether the companies whose bids fell short were informed of the 10-day protest period.
“The language that Mr. Chard has recited for us, was that part of the papers that conveyed the information to the bidder?” she asked at the Nov. 13 Monday meeting.
At the time, none of the city officials in the room had access to the email sent to Vicinity on Nov. 2 and could not answer that question with full confidence. The email, again, did not convey the protest period to Vicinity.
“We knew that only because we went and searched in the city code,” Bolanos said.
Ultimately, the council came to agree that the evaluation committee had done their due diligence and awarded the contract with unanimous assent. The vote was made without council members knowing that the email to Vicinity rejecting their bid did not include information about how or when to protest.
After the fact, in the Nov. 16 interview with Newscenter Fairbanks, Sanders said he has heard good things about the company and hopes to see Vicinity back in the mix down the road.
“Come back in a couple years. The next time this is up, please bid again,” he said.
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