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After questions were raised about the bidding process for a $47 million contract to renovate and expand the Clarke County Jail, Athens-Clarke officials are rebidding the project.

The ACC Commission voted to reject all bids earlier this month after an executive with the second-lowest bidder, Hunt Construction Group, said the low bidder, McKnight Construction, wasn’t qualified to build the jail. Another firm also complained when county officials declared it unqualified and wouldn’t allow it to bid, according to documents Flagpole obtained through an open records request. 

“It is my opinion your County is barring us from bidding the [project] and the county is limiting the competition to a few firms,” Bob Legg wrote to ACC officials in October.

Seven firms were deemed qualified and bid on the contract. Although McKnight didn’t meet all of the criteria—mostly related to experience building jails and projects of a similar scope as the Clarke County Jail—officials used their discretion to determine that the company could do the work, according to Manager Alan Reddish. “The purpose of pre-qualification is to identify as many contractors as possible who you think can do the job, because you’re trying to enhance competition,” he said.

The scope of the projects McKnight has done come nowhere near Hunt’s, when judged by the companies’ bid documents. Hunt expanded the massive, 5,000-bed jail in Maricopa County, AZ, a $515 million project, and built the Miami Marlins’ $400 million new stadium. McKnight’s largest project was the $34 million Webster Detention Center in Augusta, and the company’s experience with LEED certification is not as extensive as Hunt’s.

However, once the bids came in, under state law ACC had no choice but to accept the “lowest responsive and responsible bid,” Reddish said, even though Hunt’s bid was within $2,000 of McKnight’s when two minor add-ons to the project are taken into account. But only the base bid matters, Reddish said. “You can’t shop it that way,” he said. “Hunt could have been taking a loss on their alternates and put that in the base bid. We don’t know that.”

ACC officials handled the first bidding process properly, Reddish said, but opted to rebid to avoid a potential lawsuit. The new request for qualifications includes clearer language about the criteria to qualify to bid, he said. The commission is scheduled to award the contract at its April voting meeting.