AS COLUMBIA struggles to overcome a $9 million general fund deficit from last fiscal year and avoid another this year, city officials should explore every savings opportunity that makes sense, including bidding out service contracts as they expire.
This should begin with taking a new look at a contract City Council recently voted 3-1 to extend by five years to Waste Management, whose five-year deal to dispose of the city's waste is up for renewal.
Public Works Director Missy Gentry recommended extending the Waste Management contract because the company guaranteed a low rate. The price under the original contract started out at $11.46 per ton of garbage, but increased to $12.44 because of inflation.
Since the vote, though, a local company, Loveless & Loveless, has offered to save the city $400,000 over the life of the five-year contract if the city would let it bid on it. Five years ago, Loveless & Loveless offered to dispose of the city's waste for $14.50 per ton. Owner Bruce Loveless now says he'll go much lower to get the city's business in this struggling economy.
Ms. Gentry rightly suggests that reopening the bidding process is a gamble. Bids could come back higher. She said her department, cut by millions this year, wouldn't be able to afford the higher costs.
But City Council is duty-bound to take a closer look at this vote, and not just because of the potential lower cost. The fact that three of the seven members of council were absent for the vote is a concern. While a quorum was present, the council should be uncomfortable with only three members - less than a majority of the full council - voting to extend this significant contract. It's not a question of whether it was allowable; it's a question of whether it was in the city's best interest.
The council should revisit this matter, thoroughly assess the options, have an open debate of the full body, and take a new vote. It's possible that a majority of the full council might reach the same conclusion as before. At least the matter would have been fully vetted.
As the council considers revisiting the contract, there are a number of matters it should take into account.
- The Waste Management deal shouldn't be extended simply because it's convenient or the company has been good to work with. This is about getting the best deal possible for taxpayers.
- While it's important to get a good rate, the city shouldn't forfeit good, responsive service just to save a dollar. Whoever gets this contract must be qualified and able to safely and efficiently dispose of the city's solid waste. If opting for a lower price means notably lower quality, the council shouldn't do it. Sometimes, you get what you pay for - or even less.
- Regardless of what promises any potential vendor makes, there's no telling what bids will actually be until they're submitted. There's nothing to hold any company to a promise it will offer a low price. There's no telling where bidders might end up once they consider the details involved in providing this, or any other, service.
- If it doesn't bid out the contract, the city should try to negotiate a lower rate with Waste Management as part of the extension.
With one company already offering what's termed a good rate and another offering to beat it, it would seem that there would be a pretty good opportunity for Columbia to get a better deal.
But, as we said, there are no guarantees. That's all the more reason for the city to exercise due diligence.