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Project’s likely demise disappoints contractors

Paul Snyder

Snagging the low bid for one of 16 contracts for the Monroe County Justice Center is little consolation if the project doesn’t happen.

And with a recall election this week giving project opponents an expected 2-1 ratio on the Monroe County Board of Supervisors, the prospects for turning dirt anytime soon look slim at best.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Joe Hengel, president of La Crosse-based Hengel Bros. Inc. “Work is hard to get right now, and it costs contractors a couple thousand dollars to put these bids together. You never know if you’re going to win, but to know you are the low bidder and then it’s wasted is just crushing.”

Hengel Bros. provided the low bid, at $3.2 million, for heating, ventilating and air conditioning work on the estimated $30 million justice center project — the county’s most hotly debated project in the past year.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is expected to consider a motion to accept the bids provided last month.

“I don’t expect it to go very far,” said Dennis Hubbard, the board’s chairman.

Tuesday could be Hubbard’s last stand on the board. He faces a recall election Nov. 5, following the recall of seven other board members in an election this week.

Despite the likelihood the justice center bids will be rejected, Hubbard said, the bidding process provided an overview of project costs. The bid total came in less than the $30 million estimate.

But Julie Yanhke, vice president of Holmen-based Olympic Builders General Contractors Inc., said companies should not have to develop bids for a project that will not happen. Olympic submitted the low bid, at $3.6 million, for the building works portion of the project.

“It’s a fairly large project,” she said. “I’d say we spent 60 hours at a minimum just putting the bid together. It would’ve been a very important job for us. It could have kept guys occupied for another year and a half.”

Yahnke said contractors did not know the recall election would occur before the Board of Supervisors voted on the project bids, but she said Olympic would have bid on the project either way.

Hubbard said bidders should not be surprised.

“Anybody following this project should have been able to realize this was a contentious situation for several years,” he said.

Hengel said contractors understood the situation, but the county still put the project out to bid and tried to beat the recall vote.

“Jobs that size don’t come along every day,” he said. “For a company looking to keep its doors open and cash flow going, this is the kind of project that raises a lot of hopes in this economy.”

Harv Simmons, another county supervisor, said the county shouldn’t have taken bids on the project, but he does not think the project’s likely demise will hurt Monroe County’s business climate.

“I’ve heard all the threats that nobody will want to work with us again,” he said. “That’s nonsense. If we have a job, people will come. It’s just a matter of the cost of doing business here right now.”

Simmons said this week’s recall election probably gives project opponents a 16-8 advantage on the board.

If the board rejects the bids, Hengel said, the county will miss a golden opportunity.

“Contractors are doing everything they can to get the lowest possible price right now and they’re still coming in fourth or fifth when bids are opened,” he said. “They’ll never get a lower price than they have right now.”

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