Friday, December 24, 2010

From the county, for the county

Is spending locally a priority for Blaine officials?

Express Staff Writer

Levels of local spending vary widely from county department to county department, as shown by the graph above. Some services, however, such as inmate meals and uniforms, are not available locally, and county staff say sometimes fiscal responsibility outweighs the desire to spend locally. Express graphic by Coly McCauley

In a time when communities consider local spending to be paramount, Blaine County's level of support for local businesses varies widely from department to department.

The county doesn't have a formal policy for spending locally, said JoLynn Drage, county clerk.

"The departments pretty much have discretion," Drage said. "Once their budgets are set, the department heads have discretion over how they spend it."

And where they spend it varies widely, according to the county expenditure reports for fiscal year 2010.

At one end of the spectrum, the Blaine County Public Safety Facility spends approximately 1 percent of its supplies budget locally, a total of $301 mostly spent at Hailey hardware stores L. L. Green's and Idaho Lumber. At the other end are the county commissioners' office and Land Use and Building Services, each of which spends approximately 44 percent of its supplies budget at local businesses.

Both the commissioners' and the land-use offices said the concentration on Blaine County businesses is intentional.

"It doesn't just happen," said Tom Bergin, director for county Land Use and Building Services. "We make it a point to spend locally."

For example, the department buys all of its office supplies, with the exception of paper, at Copy and Print office supplies in Hailey. Michelle Johnson, grant administrator for the department, said that while the department does not have a written contract with Copy and Print, the company has agreed to match or beat any price the department could get from out-of-town suppliers.

Larry Schoen, Blaine County commissioner, said he also found that local businesses were willing and able to compete price-wise.

"In many cases, the local people are easily able to compete with out-of-town suppliers," he said.

One of the most popular local places for county expenditures is Atkinsons' Market, where staff buys everything from coffee and snacks to office supplies.

Why the focus on spending local? For Bergin, it's about taxpayers' dollars.

"We are supported by Blaine County tax dollars, and those tax dollars from county residents can be re-spent locally," Bergin said. "That's a good thing, and it should be done."

The list of local businesses where county departments recycle tax dollars is a long one, spanning the entire valley. Nearly all of the departments shop at Atkinsons' and many of them give business to Hailey stores such as Jane's Artifacts, L.L. Green's Hardware, Idaho Lumber and Hailey Lube and Repair. Ketchum Computers provides service and tech support from time to time, while Ketchum-based Chateau Drug and Picabo-based Rancher's Supply also appear on the county expenditure report.

Though local prices may sometimes be higher, Schoen said, the commissioners still prefer to spend locally.

"We decided the service wasn't there [with out-of-town businesses]," Schoen said.

Bergin agreed, saying, "The service available locally often outweighs the marginal increase in cost."

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However, a look at the expenditures confirms that this is not always the case. The county as a whole spent more than $18,000 at Office Depot last year, over $1,400 at Office Max and nearly $9,000 at Staples. These numbers far outstrip the total $8,600 spent at Copy and Print and Jane's combined.

Brad Roos, owner of Business As Usual office supply in Ketchum, said he believes the county should make more of an effort to buy supplies locally. Roos said he approached the county repeatedly about supplying paper and other supplies but was refused.

"We're comparably priced and we offer better service," Roos said. "Unless they're saving a ton of money, I think it's outrageous."

Schoen said the price difference is often the key factor in spending decisions.

"There is a sincere desire to spend locally across the county, but there are some cases where the price difference is so great that it can't be ignored," he said.

Char Nelson, the county's director of operations, said the county can often get a government discount with larger corporations based outside of Blaine County.

"The discount can be anywhere from 40 to 60 percent," Nelson said. "When we're buying in quantity, it makes a huge difference."

Idaho is part of the Western States Contract Alliance, a coalition of states including California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada that is able to negotiate lower prices because of the volume ordered.

"Whenever we can, we purchase local. [But] the directive given to me when I started at the county was that we need to be responsible," Nelson said.

For example, the Blaine County Sheriff's Department purchases ammunition from Salt Lake Wholesale Sports through a state contract, and the $1,400 in supplies from Office Max were discounted, thanks to a state contract. County Administrator Derek Voss said the county takes advantage of state contracts with Dell for all computer purchases as well.

The county can contract for services and supplies as well, and Nelson said the county makes every attempt to hire locally or have out-of-county firms subcontract with local providers. The county does not need to open up contracts to bid unless they are over $25,000, which means that the county does not need to necessarily go with the cheapest option in every case.

However, Nelson said, there is a "balance" to keep in mind between spending locally and spending responsibly.

"We always have to weigh being responsible with taxpayer dollars with purchasing locally," Nelson said. "If we can purchase locally and get the same quality of product at a similar price, we will do so."

Schoen said that the commissioners' assistant, Jenny Lovell, often comparison shops to determine whether shopping at larger corporations is worth the price difference.

"We have a fiduciary obligation," Schoen said. "We make a strong effort to work with local people until the point where it doesn't make financial sense."

In some cases, it's simply not possible to purchase items in-county, said Drage. The example she pointed to was the food for the public safety facility, which is provided by a company out of Baton Rouge, La., called ABL Management.

"We don't have anyone locally who does that," Drage said.

The contract with ABL Management is for $145,315, which means that it was subjected to the open bidding process. Nelson said the county also purchases cleaning supplies from Gem State Paper and Supply out of Boise, because no similar service exists in the valley. The county also takes advantage of a state contract with Gem State, which reduces costs significantly, according to Nelson.

Some county departments say it's worth the marginal difference when purchasing in small quantities. While larger departments such as Blaine County Dispatch and the Prosecuting Attorney's Office purchase coffee from larger coffee supply companies, Johnson and Bergin said their department doesn't need such a contract, as there are so few of them.

"We're not that fancy," Johnson laughed. "We get our coffee at Atkinsons'."


Expenditure miscellany

Though the county expenditure reports for Fiscal Year 2010 are filled with line item after line item labeled "office supplies" or even merely "supplies," some are both more descriptive and more interesting.

l In addition to the "jail inspection donuts" found in the Public Safety Facility's report, the Blaine County Extension Office reported an expense for "sheep worms."

l The county also provided four nights of housing for a homeless person at the Airport Inn during October 2009, when temperatures unexpectedly plummeted into the mid-30s.

Katherine Wutz:

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