Given the dismal jobs climate, it is understandable that elected officials are looking for any way to boost employment. But the idea in Hillsborough County to steer government contracts to local vendors is a heavy-handed and unfair scheme that could cost local taxpayers and end up backfiring on area businesses. The county has better ways to put locals to work that do not require manipulating the market with wasteful public subsidies.
County Commissioner Les Miller is behind a so-called local vendor ordinance that would give preferential treatment to area businesses when the county contracts for goods and services. County staff is still developing the specific language in advance of a vote. But Miller wants businesses in Hillsborough and in four adjacent counties — Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk — to have a second crack at winning county business if their bids were only slighter higher than those of out-of-town competitors.
Here's how the program would work: On contracts worth less than $50,000, an area vendor who bid within 5 percent of the winning price would have the opportunity to match the lowest competitor. That margin would shrink under a sliding scale as the contract price escalates. For a $3 million job, for example, local vendors would need to bid within 2 percent of a winning competitor; for a $5 million job, within 1 percent, and so on.
The county considered a local vendor ordinance years ago, before Miller joined the board and before the economy felt the full blow of the recession. It was a bad idea then and is a bad idea now. Local vendors have every opportunity already to compete for county work. Some services, such as supply and maintenance, already benefit local businesses because proximity to county offices reduces transportation and other expenses.
But the real issue is fairness. Why should local companies get a second chance to undercut their competitors? That rewards bid-padding the first time around. It punishes companies outside the area that have made their operations more efficient. Taxpayers could end up paying more because local companies would have no incentive to put their best price forward. Giving locals an edge could discourage outside companies from bidding, driving down competition while driving up the price. The move could also spark a trade war with other communities, which could retaliate with special treatment practices of their own.
Rather than risk blacklisting Hillsborough businesses in other markets, the commission should look for constructive ways to reach out to local employers. It would not require too much time and effort for Hillsborough to do a better job of advertising these contracts and working with local businesses to prepare them to bid for and obtain work. That would be more effective. It also would protect the integrity of the county's contracting process.