Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Fairbanks contractors say they're getting frozen out of Fort Wainwright housing deals

FAIRBANKS -- Local contractors and union leaders blasted Actus Lend Lease during a legislative hearing on Monday, saying the company is making it difficult for local businesses to compete for housing construction contracts at Fort Wainwright.

The Tennessee-based company is starting a half-century contract with the Army to oversee construction of privatized post housing. More than a dozen members of the building industry filled the Fairbanks Legislative Information Office on Monday, complaining that they’re having trouble competing for those federal dollars.

Rumors of out-of-state hirings and broken promises have been frequent enough that they spurred a visit to Fairbanks by the Joint Armed Services Committee on Monday. About $50 million has been targeted for Fort Wainwright projects, and hundreds of millions more is expected.

“With a 50-year contract beginning, we want to make sure we get off to the right start,” said Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks.

The Alaska Legislature doesn’t have jurisdiction over the issue, but the meeting was held to provide Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich with testimony about the complaints.

Critics said working with Actus has been a constant headache. A lack of communication was cited by many as the chief complaint, making it difficult to land subcontracting projects.

Actus doesn’t make its bid results public, and some builders said they go months without knowing the status of projects they are pursuing. Others said their phone calls to the company asking for details about projects go unreturned.

“The building community has had a tough time getting any response from Actus,” said Dave Miller, president of the Interior Alaska Building Association, which represents about 180 local contractors.

There were also anecdotal claims about out-of-state workers being brought in from the Lower 48, undercutting a local-hire pledge that Actus made at the beginning of the process.

Mike Holz, owner of Nenana Lumber Co., was among the contractors who suspect Outside workers are being hired after offering unrealistically low bids. Holz, who has a contract to do heating work at Fort Wainwright, said Actus’ poor communication about such issues doesn’t help the matter.

“It doesn’t leave a good feel in a small community,” he said.

Actus has a stated goal of 75 percent of its work force to be from small local businesses, and company officials said they’re living up to that target in the early stages of the project. Mike Hale, who oversees construction efforts for Actus, said 81 percent of contracts so far have been awarded to local contractors.

Hale and three other Actus executives attended the hearing, and acknowledged the need for better communication with local contractors.

But officials offered few specifics about how to solve the perceived problems. Hale said the company didn’t want to post bid winners because it uses many criteria to evaluate proposals, not just which contractor offers the lowest price.

That answer didn’t satisfy Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, who said the government and other companies don’t suffer by publishing bid results.

“It’s not fair to do this behind closed doors — it’s not open and transparent,” he said.

In a statement, Murkowski said she would follow up with Army and Defense Department leaders after receiving the full record from the committee hearing. She is a member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees military construction.

“I’m deeply disappointed to hear that the Interior Alaska building contractors have come to the conclusion that they are not being offered a level playing field in competing for the opportunity to build new housing at Fort Wainwright,” she said. “When the Fairbanks community suffers economically, its ability to give back to the military declines.”

By:  By Jeff Richardson. Originaly published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on September 15, 2009