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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Something's wrong with Nassau's contracting process

Since July 2013, Nassau County has awarded more

Since July 2013, Nassau County has awarded more than two-thirds of its specialty contracts to companies that did not submit the lowest bids. Credit: News 12

Let's see.

Since July 2013, Nassau County has awarded more than two-thirds of specialty contracts of the type central to the federal corruption case against state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and his son, Adam, to companies that did not submit the lowest bids.

Which also would have to mean that more than three-quarters of the lowest bids Nassau received for those contracts had to be very seriously flawed.

That seems to be a wildly high percentage of exceptional -- and, conversely, subpar -- personal service contract bids submitted to one county over almost two years.

Which says something about the quality of the bidders -- or the quality of the process that Nassau officials continue to insist is transparent and fair.

But let's keep on slicing and dicing: According to an analysis by Newsday reporter Paul LaRocco, Nassau, which is struggling with budget deficits, awarded 45 contracts comparable to the one it signed with AbTech Industries, which employed Adam Skelos.

Of those, just 9 went to the low bidders.

Of the $79 million Nassau awarded in personal services contracts, just $11 million -- 14 percent -- ended up with companies that submitted the lowest bid.

A county spokesman pointed out Monday that when it comes to scoring qualified contractors, money isn't everything.

Nassau uses personal service agreements on items where it lacks in-house expertise. Such contracts, because they generally require technical, professional or other skills, are exempt from the competitive, sealed bidding process, which emphasizes price.

But given that a personal services contract awarded by Nassau -- to AbTech Industries, a firm represented by the younger Skelos -- is now in the center of a federal corruption probe, a look at the process is more than fair game.

So, let's continue.

The 36 no-low-bid contracts Nassau awarded largely were spread among a pool of a dozen engineering companies that sought county work.

That seems a comparably small pool in a region where contractors still are scrambling, post-recession, to get work.

It seems smaller still, given recent warnings by county Comptroller George Maragos and the Office of Legislative Budget Review that although Nassau's overall spending on contracts has increased over the past three years, the number awarded to companies owned by women and minorities has decreased.

As a result, Maragos and Maurice Chalmers, the budget review office director, fear that Nassau could lose federal and state aid for not meeting hiring mandates.

But let's get back to the personal services contracts.

According to the Newsday analysis, many of the firms that won personal service contracts also are frequent contributors to Republican and Democratic candidates across Long Island.

There's no law barring bidders from making political contributions -- although, frankly, maybe there ought to be.

Still, there are ways Nassau could work to avoid any appearance of impropriety. How about expanding the qualified bidding pool? Or divulging more than boilerplate generalities about why one contract is better than another?

Transparency -- even as federal prosecutors probe allegations of corruption on Long Island -- matters. And maybe now, more than ever.

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