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Hernando County pursues policies to give more business to local companies

BROOKSVILLE — Even after hearing warnings about potential legal and public perception problems, the County Commission has decided to move toward establishing two new policies that might throw more county business to local companies.

The policies deal with two areas of county spending governed by different state and local rules.

In the first case, commissioners asked staff during a Tuesday workshop to craft a local preference policy that would allow some local vendors whose bids come in higher than the low bid of a non-local vendor to win the contract by agreeing to meet the low bid price.

Commissioners have been talking about such a policy for months, primarily because the slow economy has hit Hernando businesses hard.

Purchasing director Jim Gantt briefed commissioners on local preference policies in other places, the pros and cons of such rules, and legal cases related to the rules.

Ironically, just a day earlier, Hernando County received notice of potential litigation over a recent out-of-county low bid that was thrown out by commissioners as they prepared to change their bidding rules.

Rules giving preference to local companies were rejected in the only two cases that have gone to the Florida Supreme Court. Still, Gantt acknowledged, jurisdictions across Florida still have and use such policies.

Gantt did warn that administering a local preference program was going to cost money because someone would have to oversee vendor qualifications. Also, he said, with outside competitors at a disadvantage, local bidders might not have an incentive to bid low.

"It's going to cost you,'' Gantt said. "The question is, are you willing to absorb that cost?"

Commissioner Jim Adkins was the first to speak up on the idea of trying to craft a policy that would allow local bidders to match the low bid of an out-of-county bidder.

Commission Chairman Dave Russell said such as policy was "a win-win.''

He said he didn't want to see people perceive the policy as favoritism, "but we have to recognize the value of local business.''

Commissioner Rose Rocco said that qualified local contractors should get preferential treatment, but that quality work and products should be required by the county.

Just being local isn't enough, she said.

"Are we getting the best bang for our buck?'' Rocco said. "We are talking about taxpayers' dollars here.''

In the second policy change, commissioners said they wanted more flexibility in the much-different process they use to choose engineers, architects, surveyors and other professional service providers.

Those professionals, after submitting general proposals, are now reviewed by a committee made up of county staffers and one commissioner.

The top three firms are ranked, and the commission is then asked to approve the ranking and begin negotiating a price with the top firm. If commissioners fail to approve the ranking, their current policy is to throw out all proposals and start over.

But Druzbick has criticized that process, citing the fact that it takes valuable staff time to start over and seek a new set of proposals.

Gantt suggested that commissioners can interview firms, review their qualifications and do the rankings themselves, but several commissioners said they would lose the expertise of staffers in that process.

Ultimately, commissioners asked their staff to craft a special caveat to the selection procedure that would allow them, in extraordinary cases and with a super-majority vote, to throw out the top-ranked firm and choose another from the existing list.

The commission was told by Assistant County Attorney Jeff Kirk that the law governing the selection of professional services allows the county to set up its own ranking process, and it could even consider the location of companies as part of the criteria.

But allowing commissioners to re-rank the firms after the official committee already has done so could open the county to "a potential legal challenge,'' Kirk warned.

Beyond that, Gantt cautioned that if the commission were to change the ranking, people would ask, "What did you do it for?'' In the past, when the commission was allowed to re-rank, he said, the board faced bad publicity and questions of favoritism.

If the commissioners disagreed with choosing the No. 1-ranked firm and explained their rationale, why couldn't they then choose the No. 2 firm? Druzbick asked.

"We used to do it, and it didn't work out well,'' Gantt said.

He said the existing policies have worked well, keeping the county clear of litigation, challenges and accusations of favoritism.

Rocco said she didn't want to see the County Commission accused of collusion or favoritism.

"That's going to be a legal quagmire,'' she said.

Kirk suggested that an extraordinary circumstance that might require commissioners to re-rank firms might be if they thought their staff had a bias, prejudice or showed favoritism to a company. But commissioners stopped short of defining "extraordinary."

"Let's just keep it generic,'' Russell said.

County staffers said they would begin drafting proposals and bring them back for board consideration during a future commission meeting.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County pursues policies to give more business to local companies 07/15/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 10:04pm]
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