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Erie County reverses course, rejects lowest bid for Lake Avenue project

Anyone who has driven on Lake Avenue in Blasdell, with one pothole followed by another, knows that the village's main road has long been in need of reconstruction.

The path to getting there continues to be less than smooth.

Erie County's Department of Public Works on Thursday reversed course and rejected a low bid by Alden-based Zoladz Construction for a major repaving project.

The DPW sent a letter to Zoladz late Wednesday afternoon notifying the company that DPW had to reject the bid because Zoladz "failed to provide requested information" regarding Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations.

Zoladz had been recommended by county administrators early this month to receive the bulk of the funding of what is budgeted as a $3.9 million repaving and reconstruction of Lake Avenue, a major east-west county road that cuts through Blasdell and connects to Route 5. Lake Avenue has been awaiting repair for nearly seven years. The Memorial Day Parade in Blasdell has not been held the last two years because of the road's condition.

Ten undisclosed OSHA violations were brought to the attention of Erie County by the New York Foundation for Fair Contracting, a Hamburg-based nonprofit that monitors bidding for public works projects. In a letter to Legislator Edward Rath III, R-Amherst, the foundation also said Zoladz had been accused in a scheme to fraudulently gain federal work in 2017 in a case that Zoladz settled with the U.S. Department of Justice for $3 million.

Jonathan D. Rivera, special assistant to the public works commissioner, addressed the county's decision to reject Zoladz's bid during Thursday's meeting of the Legislature's Economic Development Committee.

“It’s good that the foundation brought that to our attention,” Rivera said.

The contract will now go to Occhino Corp. of West Seneca, which had the second-lowest bid. The cost will be about $400,000 higher than Zoladz's bid, but Rivera told the Legislature that that cost still falls under the bonded $3.9 million for the project.

Rivera's letter to Zoladz on behalf of the DPW cited the 10 OSHA undisclosed violations as reason for the bid being rejected because it violated Erie County Local Law 1-2009, which reads: "If a bidder fails ... to provide all the information requested in this local law, or provides false information, the bidder's bid will be rejected."

As a result of violating that law, Zoladz is prohibited from performing work on future contracts awarded for six months, which the county determined to span March 28 to Sept. 28 of this year. Zoladz is the contractor on one current Erie County project, the Dona Street extension in Lackawanna that began more than a year ago, and that is not expected to change, Rivera said.

Matt Kent, analyst for the New York Foundation for Fair Contracting, also spoke at the meeting, reviewing the undisclosed OSHA violations, including infractions cited last year after one of Zoladz's employees died in April 2018. Kent also cited the Justice Department's case against Zoladz, in which the company allegedly won federal contracting work by having a service-disabled military veteran serve as a figurehead for a third shell company that subcontracted nearly all of its work back to Zoladz Construction and another company.

Zoladz representatives had been invited to the meeting and had told county representatives they would attend. That changed Wednesday evening. After getting the DPW's letter notifying Zoladz that the company would not be awarded the bid, representatives told the county that they would not attend Thursday's meeting.

Several legislators said they were disappointed that they were not able to hear Zoladz's perspective.

Jennifer K. Harvey, one of the company's attorneys, released a statement Thursday that called on the Legislature to reverse its decision: “We vigorously dispute the legal and factual reasons cited as a basis for finding Zoladz’ bid incomplete and subject to rejection," the statement said. "We are requesting a hearing to exhaust our administrative remedies, and we remain confident and hopeful that Zoladz will be able to start work soon on this long-promised project that’s so critical to the safety and peace of mind of county taxpayers driving in Hamburg.”

Zoladz contends the New York Foundation for Fair Contracting has ties to International Union of Operating Engineers Local 17, and stated that Local 17 has previously tried to organize Zoladz, a non-union contractor that employs 175.

Asked about accusations that his organization has an "ax to grind" against Zoladz, Kent said, "I have an ax to grind to any irresponsible contractor, or someone that would misrepresent themselves to a government or any municipal body, and I think Zoladz Construction definitely meets that standard."

Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, who represents Blasdell, said she wants the project to get started.

"It needs to get done," she said. "It is the main street for the Village of Blasdell. Getting work on that stretch of Lake Avenue completed leads to other aesthetic improvements and more work to improve their quality of life."

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