When Long Island fire officials go shopping for new trucks, New York's bidding laws are supposed to make sure that taxpayers pay the lowest price possible by encouraging competition among manufacturers.
But a Newsday review of bid documents in a sample of 26 Long Island fire truck purchases over the past 10 years found that's not how the system works: In at least 21 of the transactions, bid specifications appeared to have been written by the company that later won the contract. In 15 of the 26 sales, only one company submitted a bid, and in the remaining 11 deals, eight went to someone other than the low bidder.
This is no coincidence, several Long Island dealers and fire officials said. Volunteers and commissioners routinely rely on dealers to write the highly technical specifications for the trucks they want to buy.
"If the customer likes your truck, they're going to let you write the spec for them, and realistically, nobody else should bid," said Earl Robinson, a dealer for American LaFrance who has sold fire trucks on Long Island for more than 30 years. "In layman's terms, if you like a Mercury Sable, there's no sense in going to the Honda dealer."
'Already been sold'
For example, the Bellmore Fire District's 67-page specifications for a 1,500-gallon-per-minute custom pumper, issued in 2000, spelled out dimensions, materials, make and model of every part and assembly, down to bright nut covers and hubcaps on the Alcoa polished aluminum wheels. The lone bidder was R.D. Murray, whose winning bid of $398,860 mirrored Bellmore's specifications almost exactly in wording, typeface and layout.
"They sit down with the committee ... and the spec gets written based around what you're looking for," said the district's facility manager, John Fabian. " ... It's been that way for years."
Similarly, when the Syosset Fire District bought a pumper in 1999, the only bidder was Pierce Fire Apparatus Co., which won the $308,900 contract. Commissioner Peter Morley told his board, according to meeting minutes, that when he asked another salesman why he hadn't bid, the salesman replied that it wasn't worth the time: "They felt it was someone else's spec."
That, dealers say, is the key to selling trucks.
"By the time the spec's written, the truck's already been sold," said one dealer who has participated in hundreds of Long Island truck bids but asked not to be identified for fear of harming his business. "If a dealer knows there's no other bidders, the truck costs $500,000 but he knows they have a budget of $750,000 -- hey, this is New York."
Five companies bid on the East Northport Fire District's "eight-man custom pumper" in 1995, but it awarded the contract to Pierce for $238,400, even though two bids had come in lower. Commissioners defended the award, saying the lower bids had differed from the specifications in several areas.
Dealer balks at process
Their decision drew a bitter letter of protest from KME dealer James B. Duncan, who had bid $229,340 and said he'd met every key requirement. He said KME provided more heat in the cab and more total battery power than the specifications called for but configured in a different way.
"The specifications published were 100 percent Pierce specifications, totally proprietary, where only one (1) bidder could bid, which according to our counsel is a violation of the General Municipal Law," Duncan wrote. When contacted last week, he said he had nothing to add to what was in the letter.
The district's counsel wrote back directing Duncan not to communicate further with commissioners, and Pierce's dealer delivered the truck.
Michael Hanratty, president of Firematic Supply Co. of Bohemia, the only dealer for Pierce trucks on Long Island, said in an interview that while he writes specifications for fire agencies to use, officials are free to mix sections he's written with those written by other dealers. Most truck components are available through other manufacturers, he explained, making competition possible even when a particular dealer writes the specifications.
Getting involved early
In several of the cases reviewed by Newsday, the eventual winner of the bid had been working with fire officials months before the specifications were issued by the agency.
When the Smithtown Fire District opened bids for a ladder truck in 1999, there was just one bidder: the Sutphen Corp., which had met with the board and the "Hook and Ladder Truck Committee" nearly a year earlier.
"It's almost like a catch-22 here because you're looking for a specific vehicle that's going to service your needs and then you put out to bid and all you get back is the one company," said James Kirby, Smithtown's district secretary. "So, we've done everything above board and legitimately here."
When Babylon Village was looking for a 95-foot aerial platform ladder truck six years ago, only one company bid: Sutphen, whose salesman had "worked diligently" with the department and gotten specifications "well in advance of the village publishing the bid notice," according to a department letter.
Babyon Mayor Ralph Scordino said he wasn't in office when the ladder truck was purchased, and the village recently threw out a bid for an ambulance because there was only one bidder.
State law requires bidders on all purchases over $10,000 to sign a "non-collusion" statement certifying that they have not attempted to discourage others from bidding.
"Although the fact that specifications are drafted by a potential bidder does not necessarily mean that the specifications will be tailored for that firm to the exclusion of others, ... such specifications might at least be considered suspect," the state comptroller's office has warned in several opinions issued since 1980.
Some fire districts appear to strive for an open process.
Board minutes show that when the St. James Fire District was shopping for a ladder truck in 1997, it amended its specifications that appeared to be written by Pierce so another company could bid. Pierce submitted the low bid and won anyway.