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Commissioners award contract to union company despite lower bidder

TP Mechanical Contractors, which is non-union, bid $4.3 million to install plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in Huntington Park. It was the low bid for the combined system.

But in a two-to-one vote, Commissioners chose to split the plumbing portion from HVAC work, and awarded the plumbing portion to W.G. Tomko, a Pennsylvania-based unionized company. While Tomko did place the lowest bid on plumbing work, separating the jobs will cost the county an extra $200,000.

TP executives and some local business leaders accuse the all democrat board of having deeper political motives for hiring a union company. Mary Tebeau is president of the Columbus Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors.

"I think there has been some interest behind the scenes and (the board) has made their decisions relative to union companies," Tebeau says. "Again, it goes back to responsible bidder guidelines, which we all agree with. Yet they're coming up with new criteria as the process goes along."

The change in criteria Tebeau refers to is a recent change in county policy that allows the board to reject bids for unspecified reasons. Tebeau says such a rule could allow a Democrat-controlled board to move toward union companies, which she says would drive up prices and hurt local builders.

But Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy says that's not the case.

Kilroy says TP Mechanical failed to disclose several safety violations in recent years, and violated Ohio's prevailing wage law five times in 2005. TP manager Ed O'Brien says not reporting the violations was a technicality because the company has changed names several times since its founding.

"During the scope review, we were told to go back to inception of our current company, which is TP Contractors," O'Brien says. "That's exactly what we did." O'Brien declined to comment about the prevailing wage violations.

Winning bidder Tomko has had safety problems of its own. One of its workers was crushed to death in 2006.

Commissioner Paula Brooks was the only commissioner to vote against awarding the contract. She says county executives did not make the case for separating the contracts. She said she must vote in the best interest of the entire county, not just unions.

The vote comes a day after a common pleas judge rejected TP's request to prevent the board for awarding the contract. Now company officials are considering other possible legal actions.