Using competitive bidding, Richland County bought same number of vehicles for $1.6M less
By RON AIKEN
In 2008, Columbia Fire Department (CFD) Special Operations Chief Alan Axson retired after a 28-year career and immediately went to work for Spartan Fire and Emergency Apparatus, a Spartanburg-based retailer of Milwaukee-built fire trucks.
That same year, CFD Chief Bradley Anderson initiated the first of what would be a series of sole-source contracts over the next nine years, continued by his successor Aubrey Jenkins, for tanker trucks, engines and ladders totaling $5 million that procurement experts tell Quorum should not have been authorized.
Raising more questions about the necessity of the no-bid contract is the fact that over the past three years Richland County, operating independently of the City though the two bodies share an intergovernmental agreement for fire protection, has purchased the same amount and types of large fire service vehicles — nine — as the City of Columbia did in 10 and spent $1.6 million less for them.
The savings per type of vehicle were even more pronounced.
For seven pumper trucks, the Columbia Fire Department spent an average of $471,589. On eight pumper trucks bought, the County averaged $319,053 per vehicle. On the one large item both entities purchased, a ladder truck, Columbia paid $1,047,150 using its sole-source method. Richland County paid $819,423.
For stewards of public money such as procurement and purchasing professionals, the competitive bidding process is an invaluable safeguard for ensuring goods and services are bought at the lowest possible cost to the taxpayer and in a manner that is honest, fair and transparent.
That’s why, at municipal, county, state and national government offices across the country, its use isn’t just common practice but is mandated by statute, ordinance and law. Only under very narrowly defined circumstances may that process be circumvented in favor of sole-source, or single-source, procurement.
And even then, experts say sole-source procurement should be considered a measure of last resort since not only is the public’s financial interest compromised because the manufacturer sets the price, but they also can invite unwelcome questions of favoritism, kickbacks and unethical behavior.
WHERE THERE’S SMOKE
The National Association for State Procurement Officials (NASPO) defines a sole-source contract as “any contract entered into without a competitive process, based on a justification that only one known source exists or that only one single supplier can fulfill the requirements.”
Speaking to current and former firefighters, CFD’s choice to use a single-source vendor raised eyebrows from the very start.
“It’s ridiculous that the County can put trucks out to bid and somehow the Columbia Fire Department can’t?,” said a former firefighter who was with the CFD for more than a decade and spoke on condition of anonymity. “There were a few times with hazmat meters where there literally was one company in the world with the technology we needed, but with something as common as a pumper truck, dozens of companies make them.
“Why wouldn’t you try to get the best deal? It’s not like (Wisconsin-based) Pierce (Manufacturing) is the top of the line or anything at all.”
Not just firefighters but current and former procurement experts in both state government and Richland County expressed shock that the CFD asked for — and the City of Columbia approved — a sole-source contract for vehicles produced by several major manufacturers across the country, some with as good or better reputations than Pierce.
“It’s outrageous to me that this request would pass muster just on its face,” said a procurement executive at one of the largest state agencies. “You can do a quick Google search and see lots of companies make fire trucks. Single-source contracts should be used only when there’s a single source for a product.”
Exceptions do exist for when other circumstances may prevent competition. Although states generally do not permit non-competitive procurements by statute, exceptions are allowed where competition is not feasible. According to NASPO, examples of acceptable exceptions may include “no other reasonable alternative source exists that meets the agency requirements; only one source meets the business needs of the agency/state (e.g., compatibility, unique feature to meet state’s business need, etc.); and procurement of public utility services.”
In an August 2008 email to City of Columbia purchasing director Ken Wiggins, Anderson made his case for a sole-source venfor.
“With the three new trucks that are now on order, the Fire Department will be operating 21 Pierce pumpers of this model, which will constitute 56 percent of the fleet of pumpers,” Anderson wrote. “Finally, firefighters have extensive experience driving these trucks and operating the pumps and they can focus their training on these trucks, which provides more reliability and safety.”
Two years later, when ordering two more new pumper trucks and making the case for a sole-source contract again to Wiggins, then-interim Chief Jenkins regurgitated Anderson’s four-paragraph email from 2008 word for word, changing only the pricing numbers.
Both entreaties were successful. In 2010 as in 2008, Wiggins recommended to City Manager Steve Gantt that Gantt seek sole-source approval from City Council, which he did and Council approved for a total cost of $930,000 for two pump trucks.
For a former Richland County procurement professional familiar with the County’s 2014 solicitations of fire equipment, Anderson/Jenkins’ reasoning wasn’t just flawed, it was “ridiculous.”
“The main justification for the sole-source contract contradicts the need for a sole-source contract,” they said. “If your fleet is 56 percent Pierce, that means it’s 44 percent something else.
“You can’t justify abandoning competitive bidding for something that doesn’t apply to but half your trucks. Whatever parts and experience you say you have and that are so important, they only apply to 56 percent or whatever of what you have.
“It makes no sense. It’s ridiculous.”
A copy of two 2014 County invoices, one for eight pumper trucks and another for a ladder truck, received bids from five and six manufacturers, respectively.
Spartan Fire bid on both, and in neither case was it the lowest bidder.
Columbia Fire Department spokesman Brick Lewis did not respond to questions about the need for sole-source contracting.
“At some point, I realize you want to take care of your friends if you can, and I don’t know of anything sinister about it, but you have to realize you’re not using your money, it’s public money,” the former firefighter said.
“As a taxpayer now I realize that more than ever.”
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia and like Quorum on Facebook.