Thursday, January 15, 1998
Ken Mahler, general foreman for Navy Public Works, does not agree with the conventional wisdom that the private sector does a better job when it comes to work that he wants to compete for at the former Fort Ord. "By virtue of the fact that we have to deal with the consequences of poor workmanship or product defects, we would take a different approach to the move-out maintenance work because we have to live with the results," says Mahler.
The Navy''s public works department is under a mandate from the Department of Defense to operate more like private business while cutting costs and improving quality. But local Navy officials insist they do a better and more cost-effective job than the existing private contractor hired to refurbish homes. As a result, public works employees are perplexed about why the Army didn''t act on a proposal that they claim would save taxpayers about $2 million a year.
Nevertheless, the current contractor who performs work at Fort Ord, J.A. Jones Management Services, thinks the private sector is very competitive when it comes to both the quality and the cost of its services, even though company officials refused to discuss current pricing negotiated with the Navy.
Navy Public Works was hired in 1994 by the Army to maintain the 1,500 family units currently occupied by active duty military families at the former Fort Ord. This includes providing emergency services in occupied housing, such as fixing a hot water heater if it goes out, or cleaning a clogged sink.
Public works employees also say they fix mistakes that private contractors make while refurbishing new tenants'' homes as part of "between-occupancy" work. Although Cathy Williams, maintenance mechanic with Navy Public Works, says she has noticed an improvement of the current contractor over the previous one, her department is receiving complaints on a weekly basis. "We go out and repair things, because private contractors have done such shoddy work. Tenants have no heat because heaters don''t work, wiring for chandeliers was improperly done, and there are problems with leaky toilets and running faucets."
John Lehman, J.A. Jones'' general manager in Oakland, says his crew does what the government tells them to do, but he acknowledges there is room for jobs to fall through the cracks. "When a unit is given to us by the government, there is a checklist and we perform that work. We identify other problems to the government and they add it to the list if they want it done. If the government or we overlook a problem, I could see how it could present a problem to an occupant."
The contract with a private contractor that previously refurbished the homes was not renewed because the company was not meeting delivery dates, and the quality of their work was not satisfactory, says Sheila Clark, Navy Contracts branch manager. Though this company, Maytag Aircraft, is no longer in business, at least some of its employees now work for the new subcontractor, Acepex, says Boyd Sanderson of Navy Public Works.
According to Sanderson, Acepex, a small minority-owned business, was brought in as a subcontractor last July to perform services for J.A. Jones Management Services headquartered in Charlotte, NC. The Department of Defense is Jones'' largest customer, says Lehman. According to Lehman, the Jones firm did not have to compete for the work at Fort Ord because of a contract it has with the Navy.
Navy employees say they can save taxpayers money too. Specifically, public works employees have documented how they could complete "between-occupancy work" for at least $2 million less each year. For example, they say the Army would save $540-705 per housing unit if public works installed the blinds instead of J.A. Jones. Public Works employees have also documented that J.A. Jones'' charge for replacing a light fixture would cost $80.75 whereas it cost $11.78 if Navy employees did it. Lehman would not comment on the figures his private company negotiated with the Navy.
The between-occupancy work done by private contractors presents a business opportunity for Navy Public Works, explains Ken Mahler. "We looked at the function and thought we could perhaps do it in-house. Not including overhead from up the chain of command, our preliminary figures show we would save the Army for whom we would perform these services between 40-50 percent. That is a pretty significant savings." Last July, Mahler submitted a proposal to his boss to do the between-occupancy.
But Lehman does not agree that the Navy could even come close to doing the work at this kind of savings. "Perhaps on certain items they might have the capability to do that. If they could do it for 40-50 percent less, the government is remiss in not doing another solicitation in which the government competes," he says.
According to Kay Rodrigues, Army Public Affairs, the US Army decided to eschew having the Navy do maintenance because its chief of staff wants all family housing to be privatized by the year 2005. Rodrigues also maintains the Navy is satisfied with its current private contractor even though it is a little more expensive.
But this verdict doesn''t sit well with Mahler, who asks, "Why wouldn''t someone want to save $2 million a year? If housing is privatized in seven years, that is $14 million that Navy Public Works could have saved taxpayers in the meantime."