By Jesse Wood
Jan. 23, 2013. Members of the Boone Town Council and Watauga County Board of Commissioners have both mentioned that local governments should have more authority to choose a local contractor in the bid process for county or town projects and are reaching out to state legislators for assistance.
As it stands under N.C. General Statutes, the lowest bidder must be chosen for local government contracts – whether $1,000 or one penny separates the two lowest bidders.
At last week’s Watauga County Board of Commissioners meeting, Boone-based Greene Construction and two other local contractors lost a bid to construct a data room in the Watauga County Cooperative Extension building to Houck Contracting out of Hickory.
This irked, in particular, Republican Commissioner Perry Yates, owner of New River Building Supply.
“We sit up here and we say ‘Shop Local,’ support local businesses and here we are giving it to guy from Catawba County in Hickory,” Yates said. “I got a real problem being that we need jobs and money funneled into the county.”
Alluding to the three local contactors who lost in the bid process, Yates said, “We’re talking about people who pay taxes, employ Watauga County people and buy materials locally.”
Commissioner David Blust echoed Yates’ sentiments but suggested that County Manager Deron Geouque look into drafting a local bill/resolution that would give the board a little leeway to pick a local bidder.
“This grinds my cookies,” Blust said. “I’d like to see them tweak this law by maybe some percentage points, some leeway to factor in these things if it’s close … and within reason.”
Geoque mentioned that this wasn’t the first time this happened and said there was potential to draft a local resolution that would allow a deviation from the state’s lowest-bidder law. Geouque said he would contact Sen. Dan Soucek and/or Rep. Jonathan Jordan to sponsor the bill and push it through the N.C. General Assembly.
When Soucek heard of these proceedings last week, he was eager to help and said, “I’ll have to give them a call.”
“I am in favor,” Soucek said, of rewarding local contractors and giving the local governments flexibility and discretion in choosing local contractors if the “math is close.”
He added, though, that the discretionary amount or percent has to be small to prevent corruption.
As for how long the process would take once a resolution is drafted and in his hands, he said, “I have no idea. Some simple sounding things run into major obstacles.”
At last week’s commissioner meeting, Geouque mentioned Executive Order #50 that was signed by Gov. Beverly Perdue and Secretary of State Elaine F. Marshall on Feb. 17, 2010.
This order directed state agencies to allow a North Carolina company to match a low bid if it was within 5 percent or $10,000 of the lowest bid.
At the time, this executive order was touted as a “boon to North Carolina contractors.”
The executive order stated that it would increase business in the state of North Carolina, stimulate economic development and “most importantly, create jobs” in the state.
As with the Watauga County Board of Commissioners, this situation isn’t new to the Boone Town Council either.
In May 2012, the Boone Town Council received bids for a sewer replacement project on Pride Drive. The lowest bidder was PF Plumbing Contractors out of Winston-Salem. The second lowest bidder was M & M Construction, a local contractor.
M & M Construction lost the project that was bid out for $269,582 by a measly $39. James Garner of M & M Construction spoke before the Boone Town Council in May, basing his plea on being a local contractor.
Council Member Lynne Mason said at the time that the Town of Boone preferred to use local companies but that procedures must be followed. To the chagrin of Garner, the council approved the contract for PF Plumbing Contractors out of Winston-Salem.
On Wednesday, Boone Town Council Member Andy Ball mentioned that non-local contractors have won by incredibly thin margins at least twice during his time on the council.
“A preference to local businesses within a certain radius of a municipality or county is a great idea,” Ball said. “The problem would be more than one local bidder. There would have to be a local mechanization to decide, and that would, of course, be price.”
Ball mentioned that he would be in Raleigh next week meeting with representatives in the N.C. House and Senate and plans to bring up this issue.