Miami Herald: “Miami-Dade extended FIU bridge builder’s contract, no questions asked. That may change.”

Miami Herald: “Miami-Dade extended FIU bridge builder’s contract, no questions asked. That may change.”

On March 16, 2017, Miami-Dade commissioners spent two hours grilling county executives over a contract recommendation at Miami International Airport that Munilla Construction Management opposed.

MCM submitted the lowest bid to continue overseeing small construction projects at the airport, but MIA discovered massive errors in its estimates of how many hours would be needed in the contract. Airport managers wanted to throw out the bids and start over, but commissioners didn’t like the idea of MCM being forced to compete again.

“One company comes with the lowest bid. But all of a sudden, there’s a mistake made by the airport,” said Rebeca Sosa, chairwoman of the commission committee the oversees the airport. “If you go out and rebid, then the other companies will have the information that was used by the company that offered the lowest bid.”

Weeks later, without taking new bids, commissioners voted to let MCM keep the contract for another two years.

Last week, MCM came before commissioners for another contract renewal. There was no scrutiny, even though the company was in bankruptcy as the contractor behind the pedestrian bridge that collapsed at Florida International University and killed six people.

The July 23 memo from Mayor Carlos Gimenez recommending the extension did not address the March 15, 2018, calamity at FIU or MCM’s five months in an ongoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. It also didn’t mention a June report from federal workplace safety investigators that faulted MCM for not exercising “independent judgment with regard to implementing necessary safety measures” on the FIU project.

When the renewal landed on the agenda for that day’s meeting, none of 12 commissioners present asked to have the item discussed. The contract extension passed without a question being asked.

The meeting produced such an easy morning for MIA director Lester Sola, who turned 54 that day, that Sosa joked about the light agenda being a gift.

“Mr. Sola, they released your item,” Sosa said of an unrelated baggage-handling contract that had been slated for discussion but also allowed to pass without debate. “Happy Birthday to you.”

Commissioners may be forced to revisit the quick passage of MCM’s airport deal. Commissioner Xavier Suarez is asking county lawyers to prepare a motion to reconsider the item during the board’s next meeting in September.

“I didn’t see it,” said Suarez, who is considering a run for county mayor in 2020. “I wouldn’t have voted for it. … It’s a screw-up. But it can be corrected.”

After last week’s vote, Sola described the extension as a stopgap measure until Miami-Dade can award the contract for multiple years. He expected the contract to be awarded by the end of 2019, and the current MCM extension allows Miami-Dade to dismiss the company whenever it wants.

While MCM was overseeing construction of the bridge designed by the FIGG engineering company, the airport contract involves much lower-stakes work. MCM supervises small firms hired for minor construction and repair tasks at the county-owned airport, Sola said.

“This is a trades contract. These are small projects,” he said.

Sola said airport staff would be overseeing the work, too, and that MCM has been “performing well at the airport.”

The July 23 vote before the commission represented the first test of the family-run firm’s staying power with one of its largest clients. MCM has been one of the most successful contractors in Miami-Dade, with recent construction jobs at the airport, port, and for the county’s Water and Sewer Department, according to bankruptcy filings.

A Miami Herald database of campaign donations shows MCM executives and entities gave about $125,000 to incumbent commissioners since 2012. Less than $1,000 of that went to Gimenez.

Miami-Dade leaders haven’t turned their backs on the Munilla family. Also at the July 23 meeting, commissioners approved an MCM executive, Alejandro Munilla, to serve on a county board overseeing small-business construction contracts at MIA.

Gimenez, and his wife, Lourdes, were in Chicago Sunday with MCM partner Pedro Munilla and his wife, Madeline, according to an Instagram post from a mutual friend who said she showed the couples around the Windy City. Lourdes Gimenez is a Munilla cousin, and both Gimenez sons have worked for the company in past years.

MCM, Gimenez and Gimenez’s office did not respond to inquiries about the photo, posted by Univision Chicago executive Teri Arvesu, a former Miami television producer whose family is close to the Gimenezes. She said the photo of the Munillas and the Gimenezes at a street fair was one stop on a sightseeing tour she led. “They came into town,” she said. “It was wonderful to have them.”

While the Gimenez administration recommended the MIA extension that commissioners approved on July 23, MCM was fighting the mayor’s recommendation on the contract in 2017.

MCM has held the contract since 2011. It was originally supposed to cover $50 million worth of work at MIA through 2016, with MCM overseeing repair and construction companies who operate through the county’s small-business program. Commissioners extended it three times, for a total value of $129 million. About $40 million worth of work remains, according to a county summary of the agreement.

When the contract ran into trouble in 2017, Miami-Dade was in the process of considering bids from MCM and competitors for the work.

During a tense hearing before Sosa’s committee, then-MIA director Emilio Gonzalez explained how the airport failed to notice that bid documents contained major errors on work estimates. One mistake had Miami-Dade predicting 420 hours of work from safety coordinators on MIA jobs, but the county really expected about 17,000 hours of work.

The Gimenez administration, through Gonzalez, said it had no choice but start again with new bids. MCM, which held the contract in 2017 and came in with a lower bid, wanted to proceed with the competition.

Commissioners ended up voting to keep MCM on the job through 2019 with a two-year extension while the administration prepared new bidding documents. That process continued through 2018, months after the FIU bridge collapse put MCM’s future in doubt.

A Feb. 20, 2019, amendment to MCM’s county agreement cited “delays in procurement” of the next contract to justify another extension, to August 2020. The unanimous commission vote on July 23 ratified that extension by the Gimenez administration.

Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who is running to replace a term-limited Gimenez in 2020, was one of the commissioners who voted Yes for the MCM extension. She pointed out that she and Commissioner Eileen Higgins were the only ones to vote against the Munilla appointment to Miami-Dade’s Small Enterprise Construction Advisory Board.

Levine Cava said she did not want small businesses at MIA to suffer disruption by firing MCM without a replacement in place to take over the program.

“If we stopped it, then it was going to hurt the subcontractors that are doing the work,” she said, adding that MCM oversees the contract but doesn’t perform construction work. “They’re not building anything.”

She said legislation she sponsored will force Miami-Dade to consider a firm’s safety record when bidding out the new MIA contract. Levine Cava also said she would support a commission discussion of the MCM extension, to at least address questions raised by the FIU bridge collapse.

“I think it would be good to have the concerns on the record,” she said.

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