For the fourth time in about two years, Citizens Property Insurance is preparing to review bids for new office space.
Critics say the problems with the office space bids are just one more example of how the state-run insurance company mishandles contracts.
Bids in the third round were recently thrown out because the specifications were so narrow that only two buildings in Tallahassee qualified.
After the second round, one of the two winners backed out because its lender refused to accept a condition of the lease that's required by state law. In the first, legislators complained that the company appeared to be seeking amenities such as a fitness center and concierge service.
So far, the four searches have cost Citizens nearly $70,000 in legal and architectural fees — with no accounting for other employee time.
Nearly all Florida property owners pay to help keep the state's largest insurer afloat: Every property insurance policy includes a fee to cover Citizens' deficits from the 2005 hurricane season, and Citizens' policyholders face premium increases of up to 12 percent this year and next.
Spokeswoman Christine Turner Ashburn said the company has no estimate of the employee time put into the bids. But the two-year delay may have saved the company money because the price of commercial office space has gone down, she said.
The problem is appearances, said George Banks, general manager of a Tallahassee real estate company called Summit East. His company wanted to bid in the third round but Citizens' narrow requirements cut his company out and now it's too late: The building has been rented by someone else.
"It's a public procurement," Banks said. "The appearance is as important as the reality. If it gives an appearance of impropriety, they should address and explain" it.
Potential applicants raised questions about Citizens choosing an architect and a broker for the third round that one applicant had used to prepare its bid for the second round. Citizens' purchasing director has known the architect and broker for years. But Turner Ashburn said it's not a close personal relationship, there is no conflict, and the broker was picked after a competitive process.
In its most recent solicitation in October, Citizens requested bids to rent or buy an office building for 185 of its roughly 1,100 employees because one of its leases is expiring. It advertised to rent 32,125 square feet of space, but would prefer an option to expand to 85,000 square feet or to buy a building that big.
After the previous rounds of bids and criticism, Citizens has adjusted its expectations. Gone are the requests for descriptions of the fitness center and concierge service. Eliminated are the requirement that a specific architect and cable wire company be hired without competitive bidding. The insurer has posted a call-in number for a meeting evaluating applicants on Tuesday.
The company also is addressing criticism from Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Senate President Jeff Atwater about its no-bid contracts. Citizens recently agreed to reconsider when it does not follow competitive bidding procedures. A lawsuit was filed over no-bid contracts after a Sun Sentinel examination in August found Citizens did not shop around for 33 contracts worth up to $49 million.
Details about the office space requests are available on the House Keys blog.
Julie Patel can be reached at 954-356-4667 and jpatel@SunSentinel.com.