County commissioners are right: contracts aren’t their duty
A tough but correct call by Miami-Dade commissioners will save tens of millions of dollars while vastly accelerating upgrade of the county’s top economic engine, Miami International Airport.
Saving money while speeding action is a no-brainer, but the call was still tough because commissioners yielded the actual contract awards for aviation’s $5 billion upgrade. After approving the upgrade plan, they allowed the aviation director to make the awards.
Contract powers for years have meant big campaign contributions and led to battles over contending bids. Those battles benefitted lobbyists while ultimately raising bids for other contracts by vendors who know they face needless hurdles in commission-level contract battles that will raise everyone’s costs.
So this month’s vote to let Aviation Director Lester Sola pick the best and lowest-cost bids on a massive upgrade will nudge vendors to bid less knowing that they face only one level of competition and won’t battle based on which lobbyists are hired to work with which commissioners.
Don’t get this wrong: we don’t allege payoffs. But elected officials frequently reverse bid decisions by those in government who are chosen to examine and weigh bids.
It’s not that the aviation department got a blank check. The commission already OK’d its plans. The department is merely being allowed to act on those plans quickly, with regular reports of its action to the commission.
If the commission sticks with its vote to let Mr. Sola go full speed with the best bids, it also means commissioners won’t waste months assessing whether bidders have also won contracts in nations like Cuba. This being Miami, foreign work has killed contracts for perfectly competent low bidders.
Indeed, getting contract debates out of the commission leaves more time for commissioners to do their real work: wisely make important county policy.
When governments void contract choices it deters future bidders and – by lessening competition – raises bids, with taxpayers ultimately paying more.
In a single week early in 2014 that occurred four times:
■Miami Beach junked a chosen convention center plan that had cost bidders millions to prepare and delayed the center’s upgrade for years while raising its ultimate cost.
■Miami-Dade flip-flopped on who would oversee a vital $1.6 billion sewer project to meet a federal consent decree.
■The county told proposers for attractions at Zoo Miami that bids were set aside and the two would have to negotiate in a new structure. Again, changing the rules raises costs for all.
■After years of negotiating an Airport City at Miami International Airport that had cost millions to plan, the county voided everything, saying the land was no longer available. That led to a smaller project that crashed. When government after bidding changes rules or aims, bids on other projects rise. Unpredictability raises costs.
All of that, mind you, was in one week.
So all involved gained when commissioners wisely agreed that after approving plans for airport upgrades they would let aviation professionals decide what bidders could best execute those plans.
That follows similar votes to speed vital upgrades at PortMiami and for the water and sewer department, which is more than $10 billion behind on vital fixes.
Commissioners would be wise to extend their recent hands-off votes on bids. They must vote on policy and spending – that’s their role. But it’s not their job to decide who should win contracts based on policy they have already made. In no way can 13 commissioners be expert in which bids are best in everything from transportation to infrastructure. Voters elect them to make policy, not carry it out.
It’s painful for commissioners to yield contract power. Vendors give millions to campaigns, many hoping that recipients will funnel them contracts. But, as we hear today at the national level, such quid pro quo is not acceptable.
Much as some commissioners would like to allocate all $5 billion themselves and claim they must because they were elected, they should no more do that than direct traffic or put out fires. Voters didn’t elect them at a $6,000 salary to analyze each contract any more than they elected them to personally collect taxes or pick residents to live in public housing or decide the time buses should arrive at each stop. Professionals do those jobs.
Yes, commissioners oversee every function but they can’t make every decision. They have to trust professionals or see them replaced.
In this case, after years of meddling in contracts elected officials decided correctly that they should trust their department to do the job. Bravo.
In fact, Commissioner Eileen Higgins noted that if commissioners trust Mr. Sola to do it right in aviation they should trust other department heads to do it right as well. It’s a point well made – one that commissioners should act on.
If procurement can be made far less costly, go faster and serve the public better by letting professionals do the job they’re paid for, it makes good sense to do it countywide.