Capitalism is great until a guy from out of town beats your price. It could be the motto of the Hernando County Commission, which again is talking about tweaking its purchasing procedures to benefit local bidders.
The motive is understandable. Commissioners want to try to keep more government spending within Hernando County, where the economy is staggering from the housing bust, and the unemployment rate of 13.1 percent is beyond the state and national averages.
But skewing bid rules for purchases and professional services to give an unfair advantage to the locals isn't the way to do it. It invites abuse and potential reluctance from companies outside Hernando to bid. That, in turn, can drive up prices and cost the public more than it should. Worse, it can spur legal challenges that ratchet up attorney costs and delay needed work.
Besides, in the words of purchasing head Jim Gantt, the current policies have worked fine to protect the public's interest "without litigation, without challenges, without all the things that go with favoritism of awards.''
It fell on deaf ears. That is unfortunate because commissioners don't have to look far for examples. Their own ineptitude triggered challenges to two bids over the past eight months.
King Engineering Associates of Tampa, seeking a professional services contract to design and permit a storm water park and passive recreation area on Peck Sink, challenged the county in December after commissioners rejected its bid and ordered a rewrite of their policies in an attempt to steer the work to a local vendor. Facing the threat of litigation, a delayed project and a potential loss of state dollars, commissioners reversed themselves a week later.
It was a short-lived lesson. This week, an attorney for Eden Landscaping of Fort Myers notified the county of his client's intent to sue after commissioners rejected the company's low bid to mow residential roadsides and medians in Spring Hill. Commissioners balked at the low bid at a June 9 meeting after the owner of a local landscape company pleaded publicly for the work. Commissioners declined to award the bid to the interlopers and ordered staff to devise a local preference policy. The action came despite warnings from their own counsel that it was improper.
No matter. At a workshop Tuesday, commissioners reiterated their desire for a plan to give local bidders preference on goods and services acquired by the county. Then they ordered a similar change to how they pick professional service firms, such as architects and engineers, which now are ranked by an impartial panel before final consideration by the commission.
Most distressing is commissioners' rationale that they should be able to pick the professional services vendors — over the recommendation of their own staff and professional services committee — in the event of unspecified extraordinary circumstances. What's the definition of extraordinary?
''I think of an extraordinary circumstance being extraordinary,'' said commission Chairman David Russell.
That certainly cleared it up. What commissioners are saying is that they don't trust their own staff to complete due diligence on request for proposals from white-collar service providers. The board said it wanted to change the current ordinance that requires all bids to be tossed if the commission decides not to follow the recommended ranking. Under the planned rewrite, commissioners, with a fourth-fifths vote, will have the ability to pick whom they want.
Extraordinary. Commissioners should be seeking to avoid allegations of favoritism, not inviting them.