Army Corps defends contract for portable classrooms

The Army Corps of Engineers on Friday defended a $40 million hurricane relief contract against a senior House Homeland Security Committee member's claims that the cost is excessive.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., on Thursday asked the Homeland Security Department and the Army Corps inspectors general offices to investigate a sole source contract to Akima Site Operations LLC of Charlotte, N.C., for 450 portable classrooms in Mississippi. Thompson said the price equates to about $88,000 per classroom and is exorbitant.

But Army Corps spokesman Michael Logue defended the contract award, saying the agency is pleased so far with Akima's work.

"You really can't compare this price with a purchase made under normal conditions," Logue said. "They are actually setting the buildings up on site in a disaster area."

"Not only do they have to buy them … but they have to get them into a disaster zone yesterday," Logue added.

Portable classrooms should cost no more than $42,000 a piece, Thompson said. He based that estimate on quotes from Buyerzone.com, an online marketplace.

Akima also lacks expertise in constructing and installing temporary structures and, therefore, has to subcontract for work, essentially making the company a middleman and driving up the cost, according to Thompson.

The Army Corps is not following the intent of the 1984 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which says preference in contract awards should be given to local and small businesses in an affected region, Thompson added. The Stafford Act does not, however, require such contracts.

"I am concerned that the failure to follow the Stafford Act, as well as normal federal acquisition processes, will result not only in the American taxpayer being exorbitantly overcharged, but will hamper real rebuilding and economic recovery efforts in Mississippi," Thompson said. "Federal agencies must seriously explore ways to increase the number of small and locally owned businesses involved in reconstructing the Gulf Coast."

The Army Contracting Agency awarded Akima a contract last July to provide temporary housing anywhere in the world, Logue said. He did not know if that contract was competitively bid.

After Hurricane Katrina hit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the Army Corps to deliver 450 portable classrooms for 70 affected school districts in Mississippi. The Army Corps decided to add the order onto the existing contract that the Army Contracting Agency had with Akima, as opposed to doing a new bid, Logue said.

The contract looked like "a good deal for everybody," Logue said.

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