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FEB 17 - FEB 24, 2015

Poloncarz has Change of Heart on Choice of Architect for STEM Project at ECC North

By Tony Farina

February 17, 2015

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has a new view of an old architect.

Things can change in a hurry in government and politics, depending of course on the players and the stakes, and that is clearly the case in the recent maneuvering in which the administration of County Executive Mark Poloncarz helped steer a $1.9 million building contract at Erie Community College (ECC) North to a firm that back in 2011 Comptroller Mark Poloncarz found lacking after selection for the same project.

The firm is Kideney Architects of Buffalo, the sixth highest bidder out of seven for the contract to provide architecture and engineering services for the construction of the somewhat controversial (STEM) building at ECC North's Amherst campus in the face of declining enrollment and tuition hikes.

In his letter to lawmakers last month seeking approval for the deal, County Executive Poloncarz said "Kideney Architects and their sub-consultants shall provide architecture and engineering services for design and construction of a new state-of-the-art academic building that will help ECC remain competitive and attract the regions (sic) potential students while remaining at the forefront of education in the area. A portion of the project will be reimbursed by New York State and Erie Community College."

The $30 million STEM project, which survived a legal challenge to putting the building in Amherst instead of downtown, is now on track with the full legislature's approval now a formality and supporters hoping for more development around ECC as well as a pump primer if you will for anxious developers.

But let's go back to Kideney's winning bid of $1.9 million, $600,000 more than the low bidder but the winner in a scoring contest by a selection committee stacked with Poloncarz people.

That's the same Poloncarz who back in May of 2011 issued a report in response to a tip line call that the selection of Kideney Architects for the project was improper. Kideney was the sixth highest bidder, according to the Poloncarz audit.

The comptroller (Poloncarz) said the bids were not easily compared given the surprising lack of any written analysis prepared by the projected committee. Nonetheless, he came to a conclusion not favorable to the selection of Kideney. Here's what he said in his report: "Audit (comptroller) has been provided no documentation or analysis to support the selection of Kideney over the other five lower costs proposals. Because there is no documentation on the selection process, we are unable to determine if the selection of Kideney was proper."

So what changed in the intervening period that caused County Executive Poloncarz to get behind Kideney as the architect of choice despite the higher cost?

We asked the county executive's office on Monday (President's Day) about how Kideney won the bid and he replied with the following email: "A long RFP and selection process took place with reps from ECC, Erie County and independent third parties involved; Kideney was selected from that process."

The one change we noted in the hierarchy at Kideney from 2011 to today is the arrival in 2012 of Timothy Kupinski as principal, the former project manager at one of the firms competing for the STEM project, the EI Team.

Asked about that change and the relationship between Poloncarz and Kupinski, Anderson described him as "a friend of the county executive's ex-wife who made his acquaintance through her, but his presence had nothing to do with the selection."

It should be noted the selection committee, headed by Poloncarz aides Kenneth Swanekamp from the Department of Environmental Planning, and James Hearn and Ralph Abate from the Department of Public Workers, all gave Kideney Architects the highest scores on the scoring chart. Kideney's bid of $1.9 million was the second highest of the three finalists, but they still scored an easy win in the contest. For the record, the other two were Canon ($2,081 million) and Holt Architects ($1,889 million).

When I emailed a request for the selection process documents, a public record, from Swanekamp last Thursday, he didn't respond. I was able to locate the paperwork at County Hall.

South Buffalo Democrat Patrick Burke was the only lawmaker on the legislature's Community Enrichment Committee to vote against awarding the contract to Kideney, questioning whether the new building will resolve the issues of chargebacks and declining enrollment, noting an environmental study done for the project says it will not impact enrollment.

And he was quick to respond to ECC officials who said the new building was important to developing nearby student housing off campus.

"Our policies should not be affected by the speculative interests of a private developer," said Burke. "We're losing students for a variety of reasons, [and] the most important is that other schools are investing in better programs. This is a $30 million Hail Mary pass for a college in crisis."

Burke added: "This $1.9 million hire of the architecture firm of Kideney Architects comes amidst a concerning announcement last week that ECC enrollment has declined 550 students in the same year that tuition was raised $300 per student."

Burke also dismissed claims by supporters of the STEM project that state money would be lost if the building was not built, saying state officials have advised him that appropriating money for the project is a routine legislative item and easily accomplished.

Stay tuned.

ECC plans to develop a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program.






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