BROOKSVILLE — Nick Paff tried to make his case before county commissioners last week. It was a story they have heard many times.
Paff's landscaping company had mowed roadsides, medians and in and around drainage ponds in Spring Hill for a couple of years. When his contract expired, the county put the work out for bid. This time, a Fort Myers company was the low bidder.
Why don't you give the local guy a break, Paff pleaded. If he lost the contract, he told commissioners, he'd have to lay off three of his workers.
Besides, other places give preferences to local bidders, Paff said, which blocks him from getting business in those counties.
In Hernando County — which in April had 12.2 percent unemployment, the third-highest rate in Florida — Paff's words struck a sympathetic chord.
Despite cautionary comments from their staff, the board threw out all of the bids. They then directed staff to bring back some options to their July 14 meeting to give some degree of preference to Hernando County vendors.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins was the sole vote against throwing out the bids, arguing that they had been accepted under the existing purchasing policy.
But he also is one of the commissioners pushing for a way that Hernando can walk the fine line between helping local businesses while not getting the county in legal trouble, making taxpayers pay extra, or opening the door for political considerations to factor into county contracts.
When it comes to choosing between helping out the local business or keeping costs low, "I think that you need to cut that line as finely as you can so that taxpayers are not getting a raw deal and you give a slight edge to local firms,'' he said.
"If other places are doing it, I don't see why we couldn't,'' Stabins said. "It's worth at least talking about it.''
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Talk about local preference began just weeks after the new commission was elected last fall.
Since then, the board has discussed local preference in choosing professional services (something dictated by state law) and in hiring vendors (which is governed by local rules).
Last December, it came up when commissioners were selecting an engineer to design the Peck Sink stormwater park. Under the county's selection system a committee, consisting of staff and one commissioner, narrowed the list of engineers to three; the top two firms tied in number of committee votes.
One was local. The other was not based in Hernando County.
The firm with offices in Tampa was selected using a traditional tiebreaker, counting the number of first-place votes by the committee. Commissioners balked.
At the time, County Attorney Garth Coller cautioned the board, saying that making local preference central to the decision opened the county to legal challenge.
In late May, the commissioners fixed that issue by changing their policy. Now, when selecting professional services, if the committee comes to a tie, the firms will be brought forward to the commissioners for a decision.
At that meeting, Stabins asked: Whatever happened to the idea of exploring local preference for vendors? Purchasing director Jim Gantt said that there would have to be some decisions made to pursue that idea and the county would have to define local.
Is a company local if it has a Hernando office, or does it simply have to have employees from Hernando County? That determination has not been made.
Stabins asked Gantt to research what other places do. Gantt found that most places offering a local preference give the home company a 3 to 5 percent bonus. That means the local bidder could bid 3 to 5 percent higher than an out-of-town bidder and still get the contract.
Citrus County, for example, has a 5 percent local preference.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell asked whether that had been tested in court.
"Every time it has been tested, it lost,'' Coller said.
Courts, he said, see a constitutional issue when a government treats one class of people, in this case local vendors, differently than another.
Protecting the board
During that same discussion, County Commissioner John Druzbick asked why the board commission couldn't just reject the top firm recommended by the bid committee and pick the next bidder on the list.
Deviating from the recommendations raises political problems, Gantt said. The policy was put in place "so that no discussion of political favoritism can be brought into the action. …
"It's there to protect the board,'' he said.
Stabins said he wanted that historic perspective.
"No doubt in the old days it was more political,'' he said. But he added that using the committee was political in a different way than if commissioners made the pick themselves.
Stabins said he was referring to the politics of the county's senior staff who now comprise the majority of the committee that reviews professional services proposals.
"There's politics in everything,'' Stabins said.
Perhaps the most difficult political question commissioners will face as they debate a local preference is where to draw the line.
Gantt said that research has shown that when governments create preference policies they invariably create political questions. They also can end up with inferior services and cost the taxpayers more money.
Take the mowing contract bids that the commissioners rejected last week. Paff said he was only $800 higher than the winning bid by the out-of-town contractor.
But Public Works Director Charles Mixson said that $800 was for just one run of the mower. The company would make six to eight cuts over the course of a year, which could mean the county would spend about $15,000 more over a three-year contract.
And that's just one small county contract.
Mixson added that if an out-of-town company wins a contract, their workers would travel to Hernando. They would stay in local hotels and eat in local restaurants, leaving money behind.
There were three mowing contracts before commissioners last week. Local bidders weren't an issue in the first two so the commissioners approved them. Their debate included discussion of simply extending the contracts of the previous vendors, who were all local.
But Gantt pointed out that simply by bidding the jobs during a time when bidding was very competitive, the county would save $126,000 over the old contract amounts.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.