Daniel Stewart

Daniel Stewart, Kern Community College District construction manager, spent Thursday morning educating local contractors on what's required to bid on public works projects. It's part of a countywide push to get more than $1 billion in bond projects to stay local and stimulate the economy. 

When Fairfax Elementary School District, a small district on Bakersfield's east side, requests bidders for construction projects, Superintendent Michael Coleman already knows what to expect — the same two or three contractors.

The minimal competition drives up the cost of the project, Coleman said.

“In my district, we do a lot of smaller projects, and I don’t blame the contractors for not bidding on them, but we always come down to the same three bidders, and the bidders know that and the prices reflect that,” Coleman said.

And now, as schools across the state begin breaking ground on hundreds of projects, it could be far more difficult for Coleman and other districts to get competitive bids.

When Kern County school districts passed more than $1 billion in bonds in 2016, they took part in a record-setting year for bond measures across the state. They told voters that the money would not only provide new facilities to usher classrooms into the 21st century, but also that it would stimulate the local economy, bringing needed construction jobs to down-and-out workers that would last for years.

Except the schools are hitting a hiccup. With so many bonds being passed in 2016, there aren't enough local public works contractors to bid on them, meaning that billions of dollars in construction contracts could go to out-of-town or out-of-state firms.

Bakersfield College worked to change that this week, holding a bidder's open house to educate local contractors who wouldn't typically bid on public works projects on how to get past the red tape of government regulation and compete for projects being planned countywide.

For two hours, school district leaders gathered in the Bakersfield College gymnasium with experts from the building and construction trades industry to go over the more than $1.4 billion in projects that are planned countywide, but have not yet gone out for bid. Scores of contractors milled about, scoping out the projects, their eyes wide.

Open house organizers were targeting people like Eric Patterson, a local contractor who runs Aftermath Cleanup and Hauling. Most of his work comes from demolition and remodels of residential homes for investors, but when he heard about the flood of public works projects coming down the pike, he began to rethink his business model.

“I heard ‘billion’ and said, ‘I’m on my way!’” Patterson said. “I don’t know a lot about these public works projects, so I’m here to learn more about it.”

Oftentimes, contractors take on residential and commercial construction, but aren’t comfortable enough delving into public works.

That could be because state laws require contractors to register with the Department of Industrial Relations, establish a bonding line, pay prevailing wages to employees, keep certified payroll and gain pre-qualification for jobs.

“Once you learn how to do it, you know how to do it — and it is time consuming — but it’s well worth it and that’s why we’re there to help navigate and make it a little less scary,” said Mikin Plummer, executive director of the Kern County Builders’ Exchange, which helped organize the event along with BC and Associated Builders and Contractors.

And contractors were taking advantage of resources put in front of them Thursday. Unsure of how to get registered with the D.I.R.? There was a booth for that. How about pre-qualification? There was a booth for that, too.

“We need to demystify public works construction,” said Russell Johnson, director of government affairs for the Association of Builders and Contractors. “It’s a lot simpler than people think it is.”

It’s also important to get local workers signed up for local jobs, Kern County Taxpayers Association Executive Director Michael Turnipseed said.

“For road improvements, 80 percent of those jobs went out of county. For the jail, 70 percent of the jobs went. Those are state and federal dollars, but school bonds are local dollars. We have high unemployment and we want to make sure that money is spent locally,” Turnipseed said.

Getting more private-sector contractors to enter public works could also have residual effects, bolstering a workforce that could travel to surrounding counties and cherry pick jobs, Kern Community College District Trustee Kyle Carter said.

“I think we’re in a paradigm change with oil and ag, and we need to protect our local jobs,” Carter said.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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