[UPDATED] Heavy Lifting: In Deerfield, Does Free Labor Have a Price?

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Beth Kofsky doesn't seem the type to offer free labor. At least not based on what we know about her from the forensic audit in Deerfield Beach.

As Juice reported last week, Kofsky's Housing and Assistive Technology is paid an hourly wage, but she always collected the maximum allowed under her contract with the city's Community Development Division. She makes over six figures in a field -- nonprofit corporations -- that wouldn't seem to be lucrative.

Yet Kofsky, whose agency is based in Miami, recently told Juice that she made visits to Deerfield Beach, analyzing the Century Village complex's compatibility for automated wheelchair lifts -- gratis.

"I wasn't paid," she said during a phone interview in late April, speaking of her work at Century Village in 2007. "I did it voluntarily."

The city may not have paid Kofsky, but the question remains whether Kofsky's work led the city to overpay a contractor and, if so, whether she played an improper role in the contract.

The Century Village complex qualified based on the low-to-moderate income of its residents to have federal housing funds pay for the installation of 19 automated wheelchair lifts. As required by the program, the city's Community Development Division advertised the project to local firms.

Before doing so, the city prepared work specifications that would allow those firms to know whether they had the skills and supplies necessary to do the job. Depending on how those work specs were drawn up, one firm was likely to have an advantage over another, leading to dangers of bids being rigged. For this reason, it was important for the city to rely on an impartial expert to devise those work specs.

During my interview with Kofsky a few weeks ago, she told me, "I never got involved in the spec writing."

But an email message that turned up during the forensic audit contradicts that claim. On May 17, 2007, Kofsky wrote to Donna Council, the purchasing agent for Deerfield Beach: "This lift uses a cable - hydraulic system however it is one of the best models I have found to meet the needs of the Century Village community," wrote Kofsky. She recommended that the bid ask for two types of lifts -- one that has a "screw drive" and one that uses a "hydraulic cable."

"I have attached the specifications for this in the attached," Kofsky wrote, and below that was a link to a specs page on this website, for Savaria Concord, a manufacturer of elevator lifts.

By emphasizing a screw drive, the city might have been likely to purchase the company's Multilift, which uses the ACME screw drive system. By emphasizing the hydraulic cable, the city might have given an advantage to a contractor who could build the Prolift Voyager.

Eight days after Kofsky sent the work specs to Deerfield Beach, the city posted a request for bids, inviting contractors to compete for the job of installing lifts in Century Village. The documents produced in the forensic audit do not indicate whether the city implemented the specs Kofsky recommended.

But it seems a curious coincidence that the winning bid went to EleLift, a Boynton Beach company that builds Savaria Concord lifts just like those that were described in the specs Kofsky sent to Deerfield Beach. The contract would pay $340,000.

Two other lift companies didn't respond to the request for proposals. A third expressed interest but never submitted a bid. The only company that tried to compete, ThysssenKrupp, posted a bid that was over $100,000 more expensive.

In other words, EleLift won in a cakewalk.

It begs the question of whether Kofsky's "free" assistance to the city played a role in EleLift's landing the contract. If so, the question is whether EleLift asked for Kofsky's assistance and if it gave her anything in return for her help in gaining an advantage in the bid.

UPDATE: In an email to Juice this afternoon, Doug Sabra of EleLift said that he was unaware of the Deerfield Beach audit. He added:

As to your question if we offered any compensation to Beth Kofsky or Housing Assistance Technology, the answer is no. We have no idea who Ms. Kofsky or Housing Assistance Technology is.

Our company, along with several other elevator contractors, simply responded to a bid solicitation issued by the City of Deerfield Beach. The bid specification itself appeared to be quite generic. I don't know where this particular spec came from but it is very common for elevator manufacturers to distribute generic specs to architects and builders to help them adequately spec elevators to ensure the myriad of potential options are addressed in the specification and the installation site is properly constructed.

If you look at any elevator manufacturer's web site you will see that generic specs can be downloaded by architects, builders and engineers to help them in the bid solicitation process. Again this is quite common in the building industry. To my knowledge there were several manufacturer's and installers that could have met the requested specification.

Naturally, a bid that's designed to give a contractor an unfair advantage means that the contractor can afford to inflate his bid and still win it, effectively cheating taxpayers.

Kofsky has not returned calls since our interview last month. Neither of the principals of EleLift returned a message I left yesterday. This morning, I emailed questions to Kofsky and to EleLift. If I get a response, I will update this post.

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