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A Times Editorial

Tax debtors shouldn't get county work

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002

Not too many people would do business with someone who owed them money.

But the Hernando County Commission has been doing just that with at least one vendor, Grubbs Construction, Co.

Grubbs owes more than $230,000 in back taxes, but despite the debt, the County Commission has awarded the Brooksville-based company $20-million in road construction contracts in the past two years.

Some commissioners expressed surprise when informed by the Times of that circumstance, and were even more perplexed to learn there are no rules in place to prevent contractors who are in arrears from becoming the successful bidders.

That situation is easily corrected, and the commission should waste no time doing so.

According to a Friday story by staff writer Will Van Sant, county Purchasing Director James Gantt said contracts go to the lowest responsible bidder, and that "responsible" is defined as a firm having "integrity and reliability." But Gantt also notes that his guidelines allow him to use "common sense." He cited as an example of common sense his recent decision to not consider the application of a bidder who owed fines to the county Building Department.

Why wouldn't that same standard of common sense be applied to Grubbs Construction? Certainly, an unpaid tax bill of $230,000 should be more worrisome than a few hundred dollars in fines.

Pasco County has a rule that would preclude a tax debtor from winning any public contracts, and Citrus County is in the process of writing a similar one.

In the meantime, as is too often the case, Hernando County finds itself reacting to a bad situation, or following the lead of other counties, instead of being pro-active and anticipatory. The county needs to do a better job of recognizing weaknesses in its existing policies and moving to correct them before they become a problem or, as in this case, a head-shaking embarrassment.

The commission very recently debated and approved new rules for the purchasing department. It's too bad they didn't catch this problem then. But now that they know about it, it's time to fix it.

Commissioners Nancy Robinson and Chris Kingsley already have said they believe the commission needs to close this loophole in bidding policy. We urge their colleagues to do the same.

Awarding a bid to a contractor is an investment of the public's money. Taxpayers shouldn't be expected to subsidize the operations of businesses that owe them money.

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