Vote on new court on hold as state looks into bidder

CONCORD – Questions about the firm selected to build a new Merrimack District Court prompted state officials to put off a vote planned for today on the project.

Michael Connor, director of the state Division of Plant and Property, said at least a two-week delay will allow his office to investigate the recommendation that TLT Construction Corp. of Wakefield, Mass., get the job.

“It takes some time to investigate this, look into all the questions and gather the material so we can report back to the council,” Connor said during a telephone interview Tuesday. “We couldn’t do that in a single day.”

The decision came after The Telegraph questioned the level of state scrutiny of this contract since the state of Massachusetts last summer barred the firm from bidding on public works projects in that state for 18 months.

The Massachusetts Department of Capital Asset Management claimed the company falsified or filed incomplete information on applications to build three public schools in that state.Lawyers for TLT have appealed that ruling in court.

Meanwhile, this isn’t the first project the company would do for the state.

Since last spring, the company has been building a $6 million health and science building for the New Hampshire Community College’s flagship school in Concord.

“We have had nothing but good reports on the work they have been doing,” Connor said.

“The fact the company had these Massachusetts allegations on appeal in court and the track record they have had for us probably played a part in them being pre-qualified.”

The state of New Hampshire has a process that judges whether companies are qualified to bid.

For this Merrimack project, TLT passed that initial test and then submitted clearly the lowest of nine bids to do the work for $4.3 million.

Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, represents the town of Merrimack.

“I was glad to hear this was being put off. Let’s at least have all the questions answered,” Pignatelli said. “Massachusetts took the appropriate steps in their state, and it’s heartening to see that happen here.”

The state Bureau of Public Works in the Department of Transportation is charged with conducting bids for highway and state public works projects.

The state does not allow a single firm to do more than two contracts at one time.

“This is so firms don’t get overextended, which when it happens, you can see resources moved from one state job to finish another,” Connor explained.

The low bid came well under the department’s $5.4 million for the work. The New Hampshire Legislature had in 2007 approved spending up to $7 million on the project.

While the new court is under construction, the state is asking the council to approve up to a two-year extension for the court to remain in Merrimack Town Hall space.

In an unrelated development, the council will also not take up another controversial contract that the Lynch administration asked to be pulled Monday.

State officials are recommending the New Hampshire Food Bank be granted a new, two-year deal to distribute surplus food to public schools across the state.

The anti-poverty agency in Merrimack and Belknap Counties had been doing this job for more than 15 years.

The New Hampshire Catholic Charities operates the food bank program that would receive the $522,000 contract.

Pignatelli said she’s received more than a dozen telephone calls in opposition to the contract along with many e-mail messages.

“I’ve heard from officials in other (community action program) agencies across the state and from some schools that like the job that’s been done and are worried about the future,” Pignatelli said.