Wyatt’s World

‘Lowest and best’ means absolutely nothing

The Continental Tire plant broke ground in Clinton last week and Mississippi contractors are all upset the multimillion dollar 900-acre site-clearing contract went to a Georgia firm.

Mississippi contractors are complaining loudly that the work should have gone to a Mississippi company. Jackson contractor Socrates Garrett questioned Continental’s commitment to contracting with local and minority-owned firms.

Continental Tire said the Mississippi firms that responded to the bid “were not close to the lowest bidders.”

Kathryn Blackwell, Continental’s vice president of communication, said, “We simply can’t award contracts when there is such a delta between the bottom line that we would have to pay.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson said, “I can’t see how a Georgia-based company can come to Mississippi and do a job cheaper than Mississippi companies.”

With all due respect, Congressman, let me explain how this can be. In a nutshell, Georgia has better bidding laws that ensure efficient firms succeed. In contrast, Mississippi has substandard bidding laws that ensure the efficient firms lose out to the politically connected.

As long as the leadership of Mississippi turns a blind eye to our corrupt bidding and procurement practices, our state will forever be behind.

In Georgia the bidding allows the work to go to the “lowest responsible and responsive bid.”

Further, Georgia law specifies:

“The award shall be made to the responsible offeror whose proposal is determined in writing to be the most advantageous to the state, taking into consideration price and the evaluation factors set forth in the request for proposals. No other factors or criteria shall be used in the evaluation. The contract file shall contain the basis on which the award is made.”

In Mississippi, the bidding laws allow the work to go to the “lowest and best bid.” That’s it. In addition, Mississippi exempts all “professional services” from sealed bidding. That’s a loophole you could drive a bulldozer through. Our bidding laws have almost no broad guidance language about efficiency and fairness that would at least help in the courts.

The differences in the language are huge and ultimately equate to billions a year in waste. Bear in mind, including federal grants and special purpose funds, Mississippi’s budget is $20 billion dollars – one-fourth of our state economy.

If our lax bidding laws result in 20 percent higher procurement costs, then every family in Mississippi pays an extra $4,000 a year to maintain the lifestyle of our politically-connected contractors.

“Lowest responsible and responsive bidder” means that the winning bidder must have the capacity to do the work, must follow the bid specifications and must have the lowest price.

“Lowest and best” means absolutely nothing. Best is a completely vague and arbitrary word. To a corrupt mayor, “best” can mean the best campaign contributor.

So how does this affect the Continental site-clearing contract? That’s easy. Mississippi contractors don’t focus on efficiency. They focus on politics. So when it comes time to compete against Georgia firms, which are used to real bidding competition, they get hammered and whine for political help.

Throughout the United States “lowest responsible and responsive bid” is the standard language for bidding laws. The American Bar Association (ABA) has spent decades drafting a model procurement and bidding law. The model law also uses the “lowest responsible and responsive bid” language.

The ABA model law has many other features that are lacking in our Mississippi bidding laws: An independent outside agency to monitor and regulate all government bidding. Appropriate ethics. Legal recourse. Standard procedures. No exemptions of “services.”

Adopting the American Bar Association model procurement law for Mississippi would be the single biggest thing that could turn our state around. Yet not a single state senator or legislature has introduced such a bill. Nobody knows. Nobody cares.

Even the most modest procurement reforms get buried in committee. Why is this?

The Mississippi Per­sonnel Board oversees state agency hiring. The Department of Finance oversees state contracts. Neither of these organizations has the authority to monitor and regulate city and county contracts. Cities and counties can do whatever they want, subject to judicial review, which is weak because of our weak state laws.

Mississippi needs a new independent agency – the Office of Procurement – to oversee, monitor and regulate all public business at every level in our state. The goal should be to eliminate the cronyism rampant in our state today. We need an open, honest and competitive bidding process for all government business at all levels.

The Office of Procurement should be independent of political influence and staffed by professionals. This agency’s job would be to prevent “home cooking” that is practiced by so many of our cities, counties, school boards and state agencies.

The scandal involving Chris Epps, former prison head, and his million-dollar bribes should be a wakeup call for our state. If the head of our prisons – our prisons! – is on the take for a decade, then imagine how rampant the bribery is throughout the rest of our system.

If you don’t think this is a real problem, just look at the Jackson city streets, which are turning to rubble. Jackson’s budget has exploded over the last 20 years. Adjusted for population and inflation, the city spends $57 million more than in 1990 when the streets were fine.

So where has the money gone? Gone to contractors. The city started handing out huge contracts 20 years ago while still maintaining 3,000 employees.

The city pays twice, the money disappears and nothing gets done. The Sun has chronicled the details of dozens of these deals.

And it’s not just Jackson. It happens throughout our state. It will not stop until we have comprehensive procurement reform.

Holly Springs South Reporter

P.O. Box 278
Holly Springs, MS 38635
PH: (662) 252-4261
FAX: (662) 252-3388
www.southreporter.com

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