Big KCI question marks: Burns & McDonnell’s no-bid plan is stiff test for City Council

southThe most burning question right now in Kansas City is this:

How tough will City Council members be in making sure a deal worked out behind closed doors by Mayor Sly James, City Manager Troy Schulte and Burns & McDonnell is the best possible one for Kansas City International Airport passengers?

I know: Burns & McDonnell is a top-notch Kansas City engineering firm. James is a strong political leader. But guess what?

The council still should not rush through and approve the Burns & McDonnell plan to design and privately finance a new KCI terminal at a cost approaching $1 billion.

Instead, this is a time for detailed, scrutinizing questions by council members. They need to protect KCI passengers regarding a project that will be financed by travelers for decades to come. (In addition, as I wrote Sunday, the KCI proposal is dead on arrival unless a few other major hurdles are cleared.)

Today, here are questions council members should ask at public hearings in the next week or two, even while James and Schulte try to whisk the deal through City Hall.

— Why is it a good idea to give a no-bid contract to one firm without seeing what its competitors could provide? Will the council allow top officials from other large Kansas city-based firms such as Black & Veatch and HNTB to testify about whether they’re just fine with what’s going on — or think they could beat the Burns & McDonnell approach? If it’s the latter, should the council halt things for now and try to get a full-scale competition going?

James and Schulte seem enamored of the idea that Burns and McDonnell officials had the smarts to spend time and money on putting together a secretive attempt to build the new airport. Bully for the company. The city officials also indicate going this way will get the airport question on the November ballot and then more quickly completed, assuming it passes.

Sorry, but the expediency argument does not trump the notion that the public deserves a much clearer explanation than it’s received so far about how all these moving pieces fit together.

Better and more complete answers could result from stern City Council questions in coming days. That could really help pass the project at a future election.

Absent that kind of detail, however, the Burns & McDonnell plan could end up looking like a cozy arrangement blessed by James with a wink and nod months ago before other politicians and certainly the public knew it was in the works.  That perception would not help the project at the ballot box.

— Will the City Council have an outside consultant look at the proposed “Term sheet for memorandum of understanding” (link here) that Schulte wants the council to approval as soon as possible?

It’s fine that city lawyers have looked over the deal and pronounced it fit to proceed. But that’s a far cry from having someone outside City Hall give it a fine-tooth comb.

Specifically, how well protected is the public from major surprises in part D, “The Proposed Transaction,'” which outlines the proposed total project cost, funding and the city’s obligations?

Is the “Amended and Restated Use and Lease Agreement (the ‘New Use Agreement’)” really a good arrangement for the city and KCI passengers?

— Will the council take the time to make sure other outside experts weigh in on the plan in front of  them?

The Kansas City Star’s Lynn Horsley provided a link to a fascinating piece about similar kinds of public-private deals now becoming more common around the nation and the world. It’s well worth reading.

Schulte last week signed and sent a letter to Burns & McDonnell officials saying he and the city staff would recommend that the council approve the memorandum of understanding that’s consistent with the term sheet.

That should not and apparently will not happen by Thursday, as was once envisioned.

Good. The council needs to spend whatever time it requires to deeply probe into such a huge deviation from normal city bidding procedures before blessing — or killing — the Burns & McDonnell KCI proposal.