County Comment: The Business of Buying for Government
The Business of Buying for Government
by Norman Bassett
Washington County Public Information Officer
When it comes to buying goods and services for Washington County government operations, Karen Luther says up front, "We are spending taxpayer money and make every attempt possible to spend it wisely and get the 'best bang for the buck'".
Luther, County Purchasing Agent, and a Certified Public Purchasing Officer (CPPO), has been Director of the Washington County Purchasing Department since 1986.
Government purchasing is quite different from the process citizens' use in their homes and businesses. The procedures are complex, and subject to a variety of checks and balances, including oversight by the Commissioners themselves. At every level there are rules, regulations and policies that must be strictly followed.
Only those purchases over $1,000 have to go through the Purchasing Department, Luther explains. Authorized employees within departments are allowed to make purchases from a form of credit card called a "P-card". The policy for its use is 28 pages long.
Purchases of items costing $1,000 to $9,999.99 require three informal price quotes that can be taken by phone, e-mail, or fax. Purchase orders must be written, reviewed and approved prior to the purchase-taking place.
Purchases of $10,000 to $25,000 are in the "formal quote" range. Departments provide purchasing with needs and specifications, these formal quotes are processed and Purchasing sends the request for quotes to potential vendors obtained from various sources. The resulting proposals are evaluated and a preferred vendor chosen, with the award made at the administrative level.
Purchases exceeding $25,000 are considered "formal bids or proposals". Invitations to Bid (ITBs) and Requests for Proposals (RFPs) in this range are advertised, and the award recommendation goes before the County Commissioners for their review and approval.
Proposals in that range, for major technical services or consulting services, undergo scrutiny as to vendor/contractor qualifications, experience and technical approach to the project. Evaluation committees are made up of administrators and department heads familiar with the project. Often persons from other governmental agencies and the private sector with expertise in the field are invited to participate in the review process.
The current system for advertising Requests for Proposals or Invitations to Bid to vendors is costly, and is proposed to be changed within the year, Luther said. Currently, they are advertised on the county website, www.washco-md.net, in the local newspaper, and on "eMaryland Marketplace", the state's purchasing website. Direct mail notices are also being used now, but the County proposes to go away from that system.
Luther said, "in an effort to save the County money and to streamline the process we propose to no longer use direct mail after the first of the new year."
Target date for the changeover from direct mail is January 1st, 2008, Luther said.
As of July 1st, 2007, the State of Maryland will no longer be charging a fee to vendors or contractors awarded a contract through eMaryland Marketplace. Everything will be free in that process, Luther said. Vendors can register with the state purchasing site and receive notifications of Washington County's and any other jurisdiction's upcoming contracts electronically that are posted to the site.
Questions frequently arise as to why out-of-town vendors receive County contracts.
Washington County does not have a local preference for bidders, Luther said. The distance between Pennsylvania and West Virginia is so small that local contractors don't support a local preference because of their desire to obtain business in adjoining states without fear of reciprocity.
"We are bidding in the interest of everyone in the County, not trying to make it a good thing for just one contractor or one bidder. We have over 140,000 citizens in the County that we're watching out for," Luther said.
When there is no local vendor for a departmental need and another governmental jurisdiction has a bid for such services, an "intergovernmental purchase" is allowed. The process saves cost in terms of personnel time and items are available faster as well. When Washington County has a successful bid, other jurisdictions can "piggy-back" on them. Vendors from as far away as California can take advantage of Washington County bids, Luther said.
Locally, cooperative bidding activity takes place between the County, the School Board and the 9 municipalities, when conditions mean lower costs for citizens. A good example of that process is how office supplies are purchased. In the past, the County had its own "stock room" for supplies. Contracting with a national supplier with a local outlet for delivery "to the desktop" has saved thousands of dollars since its inception, Luther said. The City of Hagerstown, the School Board and the Health Department have tied into the County contract and benefit from those savings.
Purchasing employees are required to achieve professional accreditation in public purchasing within five years of being hired. The certification processes for Buyer and Certified Public Purchasing Officer designations are rigorous and demanding, but Luther has attained both. The professional certification process shows the public a level of expertise that should be demanded, she said.