County procurement reform strives for fairness, efficiency
By Wayne Tompkins
A package of recently approved reforms to Miami-Dade County's bidding process has commissioners striving to ensure fairness while avoiding work delays.
County commissioners last week renewed County Manager George Burgess' authority to award goods and services contracts of up to $1 million without commission approval — which he had before implementation of the strong-mayor system. However, the discussion reopened the debate over how much power the commission should cede to Mayor Carlos Alvarez, to whom Burgess now reports.
In February, Mayor Alvarez said he was abandoning a proposal to assume control of contracts and purchasing decisions from the county commission.
County officials say allowing Burgess to award such bids has shaved an average six to eight weeks off county projects. Commissioners will monitor the bids in quarterly reports looking for patterns of contracting abuse.
Under a series of reforms Commissioner Rebeca Sosa spearheaded, the county blends three sources for market research to assure open and unbiased specifications for each contract — allowing more prospective bidders to qualify and limiting jobs for which only a specific bidder will qualify.
However, some commissioners feel they should lend more scrutiny to the bidding process on smaller-ticket items that are the bread and butter for many small businesses.
"I am concerned because you may require three specifications — however, how the specs are written by staff determines who can bid," Commissioner Barbara Jordan said. "You can only get one company to come forward. Departments become very comfortable with doing business with certain entities."
Ms. Jordan recently backed an unsuccessful effort to cut Mr. Burgess' $1 million leeway in half, saying items of more than $500,000 deserved more commission scrutiny.
Commissioner Joe Martinez said that when a bid doesn't come to the commission for approval, "you don't know if it's being tailored for a specific company or not."
Commissioner Dennis Moss said renewing Mr. Burgess' authority speeds up "a number of projects" including those at libraries and parks.
"The dilemma is that we need to move the process forward but to verify that there is open competition," Mr. Moss said. "I always believe in trust but verify."
Commissioners also voted to continue exempting jobs of less than $250,000 from a sealed-bid requirement.
Other commissioners said the reforms have been working well enough that there is no need to rein in control.
"I have enough confidence in the administration to give them some more leeway," Commissioner Carlos Gimenez said.
"We've gotten bogged down with our projects," Commissioner Katy Sorenson said. "Of course we want to be accountable, but a lot of projects have not moved forward because we've had all of this handwringing over whether we are granting too much authority. For now, I think things are going reasonably well."
Commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro said that if bid awards were posted online, the public would be able to help commissioners scrutinize the list for signs of favoritism.
Other recent reforms include the planned creation of a database of contractors to track performance issues and a policy that would make individual staffers responsible for a contractor's performance.
Miami-Dade County's Department of Procurement Management manages more than 1,100 contracts valued at about $3 billion. Each year, the department negotiates and awards contracts that exceed $900 million for the purchase of goods and services for the county's 47 departments and 15 offices.