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Sheriff changes policy on bids

The agency policy now mandates multiple quotes or formal bids only when it makes a buy of more than $50,000.

By RYAN DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002


Government offices from Port Richey to the Pentagon use competitive bids to ensure that taxpayers get the most from their money.

Now, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office thinks it can save money by virtually eliminating the practice.

"We're moving toward being more streamlined, more efficient," Sheriff Bob White said.

The first-term sheriff quietly overhauled his agency's purchasing procedure last month.

Until June, the sheriff's manual required solicitation of either multiple quotes or formal bids before making a purchase of more than $1,000. White has raised that threshold to $50,000 -- nearly 15 times higher than any other sheriff's office in the area.

White and sheriff's chief financial officer Alan Herring said the Florida Sheriff's Association had suggested the new bidding structure at a conference in May. A spokeswoman for the association told the St. Petersburg Times that it had made no such recommendation.

Then, sheriff's officials insisted that the Times call George Sellery of the Seminole County Sheriff's Office, who they said had made the recommendation as a speaker at the conference.

The Times read the sheriff's new policy to Sellery, the finance manager, and asked if he had recommended it.

"No," he said.

Sellery said he supported raising the threshold for competitive bidding, as White has done, but he also recommends other formal checks below that level, checks that Pasco doesn't have anymore.

Sellery requires his agency's employees to get no fewer than three written quotes for all purchases of more than $10,000.

"Requiring them to have three quotes, they're kind of forced to look at that $10,000 item a little differently and shop around a little more," Sellery told the Times.

Although state law does not require sheriff's offices to conduct formal bidding on the purchase of goods and services, the Florida Sheriff's Association recommends that offices seek competitive bids for "larger purchases," comptroller Peggy Goff said. It does not define a larger purchase.

Other than Pasco, sheriff's offices around Tampa Bay tend to have similar policies. They allow for exceptions to the bid requirements (for emergencies and services provided by only one company), and their policies are far more stringent than Pasco's.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office attempts to bid most purchases in contracts. For all purchases outside contracts, it requires some sort of quote from at least two vendors. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office requires quotes or bids for all purchases above $1,000. In Citrus, it's anything above $750; in Hernando, it's $3,500 and up.

Then comes Pasco, where no formal bidding or even multiple quotes are required until the purchase tops $50,000.

The new procedure does not allow liberal spending, White and his top officials said. In fact, they said, the policy is more restrictive than ever.

All purchases of more than $5,000 must be approved by everyone in the chain of command, including White. The old policy was not specific on when the sheriff needed to approve spending.

White said the new policy might help his agency make purchases more rapidly.

He also said it might save money because more vendors will sell to the agency because they won't be scared away by the bureaucracy that surrounds the bidding process.

The National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, a Virginia nonprofit organization that advises several agencies in Florida, disputes that assertion. For cheaper purchases there is a point at which the cost of soliciting bids outweighs the money saved, but it's not very high, said director of research Donna Beach. Eliminating competitive bidding does not lead to savings on many purchases, certainly not those over $5,000, she said.

She said agencies across Florida that set their spending procedures do it "typically very conservatively compared to" White's plan.

As for White's plan, "We don't recommend that at all," Beach said.

White said he would question any expenses that appear high. He said he could check what the agency paid for something in the past and said his law enforcement experience will help him recognize a bad deal.

Formal bidding won't be required often. From when White took office until last month, the Sheriff's Office had made eight purchases of more than $50,000, records show, totaling $3.5-million. Most appear to be for vehicles.

In the same time period, the agency made 475 purchases of between $1,000 and $50,000, totaling $1.9-million.

(White's new policy also states that bidding is required only for purchases of more than $50,000 per unit. After the Times asked about that, spokesman Kevin Doll said the words "per unit" were a typo.)

Each of the county's five constitutional offices, including the Sheriff's Office, sets its own purchasing procedures. None of the four other offices spends even one-seventh what the Sheriff's Office does. Two of the other four have written policies requiring bids at some level of spending. The Tax Collector's Office and Clerk of the Circuit Court said they generally use bids but don't have a written policy.

For all other county purchases, at least three quotes are required for purchases of more than $2,500. Formal competitive bidding is required at $25,000.

The undersheriff, Col. Al Nienhuis, said that because it eliminates bureaucracy, the sheriff's policy might work better than the county's policy.

County financial director Mike Nurrenbrock wouldn't comment specifically on the sheriff's policy.

"Whenever you're dealing with public funds, you want to have documentation that you are getting the best available price," he said. "Let me just say I'm happy with (the county's) policies and procedures as they stand now."

White's policy doesn't require that documentation. That raises the question: How will taxpayers know if the sheriff is spending their money wisely?

"It begins with his budget," spokesman Doll said. "He's not going to submit a fiscally responsible budget and then wildly spend money."

-- Ryan Davis is the police reporter in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245, or toll-free at 800-333-7505, ext. 6245. His e-mail address is rdavis@sptimes.com.

Sheriff's Office Purchasing Policy

Current

$50,000 and up: formal, competitive bids advertised in newspaper

Up to $50,000: quote required from one source

July 1996-June 2002

$10,000 and up: formal, competitive bids advertised in newspaper

$3,000 to $9,999.99: formal, competitive bids required from as many vendors as possible

$1,000 to $2,999.99: fax or written quotes required from at least three vendors

Up to $1,000: quote required from one source

Before July 1996

More than $3,000 per unit: formal bidding required

-- Source: Pasco County Sheriff's Office

Sheriff Bob White says his change to the purchasing policy could save money.

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