Viewpoint: County staff follows law when soliciting, awarding bids
BY RON SMITH
At their last meeting, the Board of County Commissioners approved a contract to construct a major addition to the Iredell County Jail. At that meeting, a citizen questioned the County’s use (or lack thereof) of local and Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUBs). Because this was stated in an open meeting and was subsequently reported by the media, I want to take an opportunity to explain more about our requirements and practices in this regard.
The concern raised at the meeting was somewhat one-sided, referencing a state report that details project awards and participation. According to that report, Iredell County had virtually no projects awarded to HUBs over the last several years. I certainly do not want to get into a back-and-forth on this issue, but do want to clarify our obligation as a County to be accountable to the taxpayers and to spend public funds in the most responsible way possible.
The State of Noth Carolina generally defines a HUB as a business that is predominately owned by a citizen who is female, minority, disabled or disadvantaged. The State requires local governments to set a minimum 10 percen HUB participation goal for construction projects over $30,000, which we have done. However, the State also requires that we use the lowest responsible bidder on construction projects. In many cases these two statutes conflict, with the low-bid requirement taking precedence. The statutes do not currently allow us to set local business preferences for participation in these projects.
Iredell County attempts to meet the 10 percent goal by sending out specific notices to nearby known HUBs for any construction and repair project over $30,000. For example, if Iredell County needs to re-roof a building our staff emails all known HUB registered roofers in Iredell and surrounding counties. At that point, statute specifically requires that we award the contract to the lowest responsive, responsible bidder, regardless of their ownership classification or location. This means that Iredell County cannot choose who wins contracts; those decisions are based on the bottom line, as long as they are “responsible." We cannot make an award based on anything more than that.
The above-referenced report does not take into account the times that the County receives bids and does not have an HUB submit a bid. Iredell County is required to report all construction and repair projects to the State of North Carolina and includes who was notified and who submitted bids. From 2008 through 2016, Iredell County reported 25 projects (over $30,000) to the State. Of those 25, only nine received a bid from a HUB, with none being the low bidder.
In addition, many businesses who qualify as HUBs choose not to register as such with the State. That is their choice as private business owners in our community. However, their decision not to register does make it harder to perform outreach and meet our goals and, in some cases, we do award contracts to these companies, but they do not show up or count on the HUB report because they are not registered.
The largest projects we have undertaken recently are the jail expansion project (which started this conversation) and the Public Safety Complex. In the very early stages of this process, we hired a well-known firm specializing in HUB participation projects to assist us with our outreach efforts. This company hosted two outreach sessions for the jail project and one for the Public Safety Complex. This company was also involved with getting HUBs pre-qualified and hosted workshops for potential bidders before bids were due. In our original jail bid process, we might have awarded 20 percent of the project to HUBs, but as the cost came in over budget we had to rebid the project and it is now something of a moot point, other than our intent.
I am very proud of the job that our staff does to treat all people as fairly as possible under local, state and federal law. Our purchasing staff personnel takes their job very seriously and do their best to reach out to HUBs and local companies in our community. I appreciate this citizen’s concern, but I believe that Iredell County is using all reasonably available resources to encourage and award projects in the required manner, regardless of location, race or gender, and looks for and uses other resources whenever possible.
Ron Smith is the Iredell County manager.