Deja Vu All Over Again. Again.

I don’t know what it is about the City of Trenton and its Information Technology Services. The City just can’t seem to figure out how to manage IT services, specifically the purchasing and contracting process by which Trenton hires its vendors. We seem to be right back in the exact same spot we were almost five years ago, with a murky and troublesome contracting process resulting in the current vendor being jettisoned for a more expensive company – compared to other bids the City received, MUCH more expensive – of unknown capability. Here we go again.

Both the Trenton Times and the Trentonian today feature stories that report that a new company, FCC Consulting Services of Columbus, took over the maintenance and operation of the City’s IT infrastructure yesterday, from the previous vendor of nearly 30 years, ADPC Inc. of Princeton.

There are just a few problems with the way this rolled out. First, the contract granting FCC the City’s business has not yet been approved by City Council. Council is set to deliberate the matter this coming Thursday. And second, of the 12 companies that submitted proposals for the City’s business, FCC was not the low bidder. In fact, it was the third-most expensive proposal, coming in as even more expensive than the previous vendor ADPC.

How can this be?

You may be excused for a sense of deja vu. Back in early 2011, the Mack Administration attempted to deep-six ADPC’s contract, in favor of a company called Lynx Technology. This attempt turned into a big mess, which resulted in several lawsuits and a judge’s ruling that the City’s contract process had been fatally flawed. In the words of Judge Linda Feinberg talking about the City’s process, “this is sloppy, and this bid, if properly evaluated in the first place, would not have made it to council for a vote one time, let alone two times.” Neither the Admnistration, nor City Council, came out well in that misadventure. For more background on the earlier IT Mess, you can go here, or here, or here. You’ll get the idea.

This time around, the City is saying all kinds of things in order to justify putting FCC in place before Council has a chance to weigh in on the matter. Acting Law Director Marc McKithen told the Times that FCC had to start because the old contract with ADPC expired on October 31. “”There was no way for either firm [ADPC or FCC] to be extended without a contract and this is the first opportunity the city has to get approval from council. Was it better to go with the old firm with no contract or the new firm with no contract? That is a choice the administration had to make.”

Mr. McKithen seems to have, perhaps conveniently ignored the fact that during the great Lynx mishigas four years ago, Council authorized an extension to ADPC’s contract while a new bid process sorted itself out. This time around, I don’t know why the Administration could not have gone to Council earlier with a request to approve a new contract before the old one expired, or simply have extended the old one until Council could have decided the matter. It seems to me the City was in a great big rush to put FCC in place as the new vendor.

I don’t know why. It’s not as if FCC will save the City a lot of money. In fact, as referenced above, FCC was the third-highest bid out of 12 companies who submitted proposals. And that’s on the 3-year base price alone, not including hourly charges for emergency calls. FCC’s hourly rate is the highest that any of the 12 firms quoted. Many of the 12 weren’t even going to charge an hourly rate for emergency service calls.

Here’s an excerpt from a summary sheet that the City’s purchasing department prepared to show the 12 bids. You’ll see that FCC (first bid on the left) is pretty pricy:

Trenton IT RFP replies

So, at least Trenton should expect some first-class service from this company for the price, right? After all, according to Mr. McKithen and Business Administrator Terry McEwen, it’s not entirely about the money. As described in Cristina Rojas’ piece for the Times, “McEwen and McKithen said that cost was one of many factors that were considered in making a decision, including technical skill sets, experience and level of management. ‘Bid price is not the defining criteria,’ McKithen said. ‘It’s one of many factors that we consider, but we’re looking at the overall best proposal.’ ”

Let’s look, then, at some of the “many factors” Mr. McKithen says have to be considered. Let’s look at FCC Consulting Services. The address listed on the company’s website is that of a private house in Columbus, NJ. The principal of the company, Frederick C. Carothers, is the only person listed as the Management Team. Listed as Clients are AT&T, Toys R Us, Trenton Educational Development Corporation, Community Response, YWCA of Trenton, Shiloh Baptist Church, and ESP Pharmaceuticals. Apart from AT&T & Toys R Us – and the presence of those companies invites the question of how much of their business FCC actually has – the other clients are small entities.

Looking over the company’s website leads me to question why an apparently very small firm, operating it seems out of the proverbial garage, can submit a proposal significantly more expensive than 9 other competitors, and win a contract. The firm does not seem to be encumbered with a huge overhead. Its expertise – as evidenced by its client list – does not obviously show proven ability to handle the needs of small municipalities. Why did they get the gig from Trenton?

Let’s look briefly at the other 11 bidders. I’ve ranked them below, in order of the amount of their base proposal, and how their bids compared with FCC’s winning proposal, as a percentage of FCC’s bid. I’ve also included some notes about their businesses: sample clients, where they are listed, or some notes about the size of the company when clients are not listed. Below this table are links to each of the other 11 bidders, including ADPC.

trenton bids with notes

Take a look at some of these websites. Take a look at their client lists. Take a look at the corporate presence of these companies. Do you see anything in FCC that is worth paying a premium of $300,000, or $400,000, or nearly $750,000 for? Do you think companies that provide services to cities such as Dallas, Detroit, or Philadelphia would have problems with Trenton? Is it conceivable that a company that is under contract to the US Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security could handle the City of Trenton, at $700,000 less than FCC’s rate?

FCC’s bid is much more expensive than many of the other bids, and it is not entirely obvious that the quality of service would be better. It is not obvious at all how FCC stacks up in the “many factors” other than cost that Mr. McKithen has considered. It’s not obvious what makes FCC’s the “overall best proposal.”

David Foster’s article in the Trentonian today reports some of the background to this bid process. It does not inspire confidence, to be frank. The article quotes at length a rep from ADPC, Joseph Harris, who alleges that the bid process was manipulated to allow FCC to rise to the top of the rankings, over the course of two separate Proposal processes. I can’t evaluate Mr. Harris’ claims of “collusion” on the part of City officials to award the contract to FCC.

But the historical record of the last time that the City attempted to squeeze ADPC out of its contract with the City, in favor of the then-preferred Lynx, would tend to support Harris’ claims.

The fact that FCC has been installed in place without Council’s approval – and apparently without the involvement of a Council committee that was supposed to evaluate the competing proposals, according to Members George Muschal and Marge Caldwell-Wilson, as reported by Mr. Foster – would tend to support Mr. Harris’ claims.

Allegations by Harris of personal connections, via shared board memberships and prior work done for other organizations, of FCC’s principal Carothers with Trenton officials including Business Administrator McEwen and Council Member Zach Chester, don’t on their face support Mr. Harris claims. But they do bear further discussion.

Also, it will be interesting to hear Mr. Chester’s stance on this matter. Back in 2011, after first voting against Lynx, he flipped his vote in favor of the firm, basing his position in large measure on the fact that Lynx was the low bidder. That is most definitely not the case with FCC.

The bottom line is that the Administration went out of its way to push a current vendor out of its business contract with the City, in favor of a company of unproven ability and resources, whose proposal was significantly higher than 9 out of 12 other companies.

How come? I hope we find out on Thursday.

3 comments to Deja Vu All Over Again. Again.

  • Ed W

    I also would like a better handle on there decision process, as someone who is familiar with IT services, resumes with their chief technical people would be submitted with there respective credentials/Industrial certifications included. so what were there great technical advantage?

    btw with modern computers today, the need for a large tech crew is much less than even 4 yrs ago, this normally would see a gradual saving on computer maintenance, but trentonians know that city hall is far from normal.

    as for having a contractor start without a contract, this puts the city at risk for an expensive lawsuit, so does this mean that this company “has” to be picked without city counsel approval, because of this possible lawsuit?

    maybe the mayor will come forward and explain this foolishness to the citizens who have to pay this through higher property taxes