No Competition, Please

Astros owner Drayton McLane is a man in a hurry. Just last week, he ceremoniously unveiled architect's plans for his new downtown stadium, one with plenty of fashionable retro touches, including natural grass and a monster scoreboard to make fans forget the original Astrodome wonder that was dismantled to make way for more seating to keep Bud Adams happy. The accompanying timetable called for ground to be broken at the corner of Crawford and Texas this November, with "The Ballpark at Union Station" (clever, huh?) to be ready for a 2000 home opener.

Given that the Legislature is plodding forward with various bills to provide sources of funding for the stadium, none of which appear ready for passage, that timetable seems tighter than the noose McLane was holding around Houston's neck before voters approved last November's referendum on the stadium proposal.

Presuming Senator John Whitmire's version (or, more likely, that of Fort Worth Representative Kim Brimer) makes it through the Legislature and gets the governor's signature by July (as required by the letter of agreement McLane signed with the city and county), a host of cumbersome details still must be taken care of before construction can begin. In particular, there's the question of who gets the plum contracts on the $250 million facility, which would ordinarily fall under competitive bidding laws and take months to resolve.

But ordinary is not a word that has applied to the city's ballpark endeavor from the beginning, and nothing seems to have changed: Whitmire's bill specifically exempts the baseball stadium from competitive bidding requirements.

Whitmire disclaims responsibility for the bill's particulars, which were written by lawyers working for the city and county, including Bob Collie of the ubiquitous Mayor Day Caldwell & Keeton firm, and fed to him by city lobbyist Sabrina Foster. He only got involved in the issue late in the game, he says, to help speed the legislative process. "This was not ever my piece of legislation, in the sense that I drafted it," he admits. "They brought it to me."

Whitmire says he questioned some of the more curious provisions in the bill, including the competitive bidding clause. The reason the waiver is necessary, he was told, is "totally because of the time crunch for the Astros getting a facility built as quickly as possible."

Well, not totally, according to mayoral aide and stadium shepherd Dave Walden. The main reason to eliminate competitive bids, Walden says, is to keep the costs down. When projects are bid out in pieces, he explains, the contractors often inflate their fees by up to 10 percent in the form of "change orders," which allow them to recoup expenses for unexpected work if a project is adjusted in midstream. This may explain why so many huge city contracts -- the billion-dollar wastewater program springs to mind -- end up costing much more than originally planned.

Without competitive bids, on the other hand, contractors can be held to a fixed maximum price, meaning that they have to absorb any cost overruns instead of passing them along to the taxpayers.

"You get a guarantee this way," Walden explains.
If this seems to contradict the logic of having competitive bidding in the first place, Walden won't argue. Oddly, the bill Whitmire was handed targets only the ballpark for the exemption, meaning the proposed new basketball/hockey arena and the planned Astrodome renovation will be subject to the usual bidding laws -- unless those projects are also granted legislative exemptions. Asked why, if it's advantageous for one project, the others are not included, Walden replied, "Well, we're gonna see how advantageous it is."

The exemption will certainly be advantageous to the contractors with the inside track on the ballpark job. And according to Whitmire, those are being chosen. "They've already started pursuing contractors, engineers and others," he says. "I'm learning more about it every day." One name that already has surfaced is that of engineering giant Brown & Root, which apparently is in line to manage construction of the ballpark.

Which raises the question of who is making such decisions, and whether they have the right to do so before a stadium bill is approved by the Legislature or a dime collected to pay for the ballpark.

The legislation would create a sports authority, which would then be vested with the necessary powers to raise money and spend it. But since it hasn't been passed yet, just who gets to decide how to spend the $250 million -- most of which would be public money -- isn't clear. That doesn't seem to deter McLane and the stadia boys: When you've got to move fast, sometimes those pesky questions just get in the way.


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