Council approves move toward ending low-bid contracting

Philadelphia City Hall - photo by Antoine Taveneaux

Philadelphia City Hall - photo by Antoine Taveneaux

The word on everyone’s lips this council season in Philadelphia was “slow.” With a national election sucking the air out of local politics and no banner piece of legislation to hang their hats on, city legislators stuck to tweaks and uncontroversial personal projects. The nitty-gritty politicking happened behind closed doors, and even that mostly revolved around preparing for the city’s major Rebuild initiative next year.

But the last day of the season is always packed with last-minute legislation and Thursday was no exception. With eyes still on Rebuild, which will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into repair contracts for dilapidated city-owned facilities, council approved a move to shift the city’s contracting process from lowest bidder to so-called “value bidding.”

Advocates, like bill sponsor Bobby Henon, hailed the moves as a reform.

“It is a best practice,” he said, in a prepared statement. “Best Value is a modern procurement practice that will allow the City to include other criteria, beyond cost alone, to determine which bid is selected.”

In floor speeches, Henon and Councilmember Derek Green noted that among major American cities, only Philly and Indianapolis have stuck with low-bid contracting – a system that was also hailed as reform for big cities dominated by cronyism in the mid-20th century. Philly’s current bid system dates to that time, and any change will require voter approval next year to modify the city’s 1950s-era home rule charter. 

Proponents of value bidding – including the Kenney administration – say experienced contractors game the city’s current system by simply lowballing bids and tacking on overruns later. The proposed update would instead create a yet-to-be-determined “score” of contractor value that took other variables into account.

But not everyone is happy. Former managing director Jay McCalla, in an Inquirer op-ed, said value bidding would become a tool for the mayor to “steer contracts to donors or other favored firms.”

Reached via email, McCalla stuck by those comments.

"This bill solves zero problems and widely opens the door to pressure and argument in awarding contracts," he wrote. "The timing is concerning because of the upcoming $600 million Kenney plans to spend on his 'ReBuild'. There's an ethical cloud over this administration that makes probing questions necessary."

Advocates fired back in council that the new system would, in fact, increase contract transparency.

“As far as loudest criticism as to how it opens the door for cronyism and politics…[bids] will be weighted, bids will be evaluated by committee,” said Councilmember Bill Greenlee. “And once the winning bid is selected, the city will make available to the public the score of that bid.” 

The bill had been held up in a morning caucus session, but was brought to the floor in session and passed without dissent.

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