Santa Barbara City Councilman Mike Jordan.
Santa Barbara City Councilman Mike Jordan supports the proposed change to the city's public contract bidding process. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk file photo)

Quality over quantity.

That’s Santa Barbara’s new motto when it comes to public construction projects.

The City Council took the first step Tuesday toward putting a measure on the November 2024 ballot that would allow the city to move from accepting the lowest bidder to “best value” contracts.

The change would require an amendment to the city’s charter.

Low-bid contracts, city officials said, are “technically responsible,” but that projects have risen by about 15% above an engineer’s initial estimate. Low-bid work is sometimes poor quality, lacks adherence to schedule and experiences “unsatisfactory work site cleanliness.”

The city has experienced cost overrun and delays with the ongoing Library Plaza Project. The city is also gearing up for a bid on the new police headquarters, and a change in the procurement process would give the city more flexibility. The police station expected to cost about $90 million.

“At the end of the day, it’s about having a strategy for a higher-quality product and, in some cases, you might even be able to get it cheaper,” Councilman Eric Friedman said.

Other cities have moved from a lowest-bidder to best-value approach, which has resulted in better-quality, more cost-effective projects, according to city officials.

The proposal calls for various tiers. For contracts less than $75,000, the public works director would have the power to negotiate with and choose qualified contractors. For contracts between $75,000 and $500,000, the city would conduct a bid process with qualified contractors.

For contracts higher than $500,000, the city would work with qualified contractors and a set of criteria ahead of time. Cost, past performance, experience, personnel, technical approach, and schedule would be part of the package. The bids would be reviewed and ranked by a selection committee.

City Councilman Mike Jordan said the change “modernizes” procurement techniques.

“While some may have concern with a change in charter terms, it still offers any council in the future the opportunity to change those working details under this change to adjust it if it needs further adjustment or even bring it back to a little more restricted controls,” Jordan said. “I wholeheartedly agree with this change.”