Spending our money

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It could be argued that spending money is as easy as tripping over a rock. You grab something from the store, order from your favorite website and get free shipping or just pay the kid next door $20 to mow the lawn.

It could be argued that spending money is as easy as tripping over a rock. You grab something from the store, order from your favorite website and get free shipping or just pay the kid next door $20 to mow the lawn.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Valencia County Purchasing Agent Mike Vinyard double checks the details of one of the many purchase orders that comes through his office on a daily basis. No matter the amount, all purchases made with public money are scrutinized and double checked by his department.

You hire who you want for the reasons you want and, short of breaking the law, there are few restraints on how things are bought in the private sector.

But when you move over to the public realm, things get a lot more complicated. Red tape, forms in triplicate, deadline-complicated. There are policies, procedures, purchase orders, bids, proposals, rules, regulations and statutes. And there is a fundamental reason for all intricacies of government spending — fairness.

That is the first word out of Mike Vinyard’s mouth when you ask him why all the hoopla is necessary. As the purchasing agent for Valencia County and the former New Mexico state purchasing agent, Vinyard preaches openness and fairness in the procurement process with a broad smile.

“The attitude is often, ‘If it costs the county a few more dollars, so what? It’s not my money.’ And that’s the mindset we need to overcome,” Vinyard said. “There needs to be a set of rules because we are often dealing with large amounts of money — taxpayer money. And it’s not my money.”

A government body’s procurement code forces it into a set pattern for making purchases, Vinyard said, that businesses and vendors can rely on.

“When the system breaks down, that feeds into the county’s reputation of it’s not what you know but who you know,” he said.

When there is even the perception of favoritism and an unfair process, distrust by the public and the vendors runs rampant, Vinyard said.

“Businesses get frustrated and stop even trying to compete if there’s the perception that one company always gets the job,” he said.

And that lack of competition keeps prices higher than they should be in many cases.

“The whole point is to find who offers the better cost or service, but businesses view bidding as a waste of time if there’s the idea that everyone already knows who is going to get the bid,” Vinyard explained. “That is the mindset I wanted to change in Valencia County. If we can make the purchasing picture look squeaky clean to the vendors then, win or lose, they know it was fair and square.”

To help businesses compete fair and square, earlier this year, Vinyard hosted a workshop for local businesses to help them be more competitive in seeking government contracts. While the focus of the two-hour seminar was on how to earn the county’s business, Vinyard covered information that applied to almost all government agencies below the federal level.

The training covered how needs are identified and documented in government, how those needs are communicated to businesses that might be interested in the business and how businesses should respond to be as competitive as possible.

“Our goal here is to help make Valencia County businesses more competitive when it comes to seeking government contracts,” Vinyard said.

Following the old saying that “knowledge is power,” Vinyard thinks the more informed Valencia County businesses are on how the purchasing process works, the more competitive they will be.

“And that translates directly into more local money staying in the county,” Vinyard said.

Procurement laws prohibit government from favoring local businesses because the whole purpose of having a competitive process is to stretch those tax dollars as far as possible, Vinyard said. But there are discretionary purchasing limits, usually under $10,000, that allow local agencies to at least look locally first. Maybe the goods cost a few cents more per unit but, once shipping and handling is factored in, it’s a bit of a wash.

In the time Vinyard has been with the county, he has made several changes to the purchasing department, including bringing small-purchase limits up from an almost impossible to work with $500. By having such a low limit, the county would often find itself artificially splitting purchases into $499 allotments rather than going over the cap and having to do a more formal procurement process such as a request for proposal or bids.

Not only did processing numerous small purchases overwhelm the department with paperwork, it most likely led to waste, Vinyard said. He also pushed for and got approval of a performance-based bid process as well.

In a typical bid scenario, the vendor with the lowest price wins the contract. But sometimes, the lowest price comes with a risk — you get what you pay for and sometimes that is cheap goods.

For instance, say the county wanted to buy tires for its fleet cars and the low bid was $5,000. But the quality of tires offered indicated that tires would need to be replaced every six months. Under the performance-based bid, a company could bid $7,000 for tires that would last a year, thus saving the county money in the long run.

Vinyard has also added a buyer, Michelle Romero, to the department. Both are keenly aware of the role they play in good government and the stewardship they exercise over the taxpayers’ money. Vinyard is an outsider, with no connections to Valencia County while Romero was born and raised here.

“I make my living off the backs of the taxpayers; they pay my salary,” Vinyard said. “I take great pride in what I do and I enjoy it. If anyone wants to come in here and look at our procurement files, I welcome them. We are not only laying all our cards on the table, but we’re saying come in and see our cards.”

That attitude is something that is contrary to the government purchasing stereotype, Romero says.

“If we are careful, the less likely we will need more money to get the things we need,” Romero said. “And if we need more money, well, it has to come from somewhere.

“This is my community. I see these people in the grocery store. I am proud of what we are doing here because we’re doing it right. By following the procurement process, the playing field is set out for us.”

And that playing field is part a fair, competitive process that benefits everyone, says Leona Vigil, clerk for the city of Belen. Vigil and finance director Rosann Peralta, handle purchasing for the city.

“It benefits the citizens, the city and the vendor community,” Vigil said. “The whole purpose is to get the best value for the dollar. The statute tells us how things need to be done, what we can and can’t do and we don’t go beyond that. I’m not going to jeopardize my job.”

As a small town with a small budget, Peralta said one way the city stretches its dollars is by emphasizing regular maintenance of equipment.

“Our department heads set maintenance schedules and our employees are really good about keeping up their equipment,” Peralta said.

Belen faces many of the challenges Vinyard touched upon — buying locally, the perception of favoritism and making sure purchases are for quality goods.

“We work for the citizens of Belen. Our employees are out there doing that work for them and they need the proper equipment so they can get the work done,” Peralta said. “So we need to find ways to get them good, quality equipment and save the city and the citizens money.”

A few years ago, she said the city found what looked to be a great deal on work gloves. The only problem was, they began tearing apart after only a few days of use.

And the perception of favoritism is sometimes just that — a perception. The city’s previous fleet card wasn’t accepted at all the local filling stations, Vigil said, so the city switched to one that could be used anywhere.

“And I know at one point, we got a call from a local gas station asking why our fire trucks never filled up there,” she said. “Well, there was a canopy over the pumps and the big trucks couldn’t fit under it. There wasn’t much we could do about that. Sometimes things are just that way.”

Gayle Jones, clerk/administrator for the village of Bosque Farms, said the village works hard to balance buying local with buying smart.

“Sometimes we can get something here that’s a little more expensive than say Albuquerque,” Jones said. “But we have to send someone up there to get it or have it shipped. If we send someone to pick it up, that’s an employee who isn’t here working.”

Like many government agencies, Jones said when a purchase needs to be made by the village, she starts local, getting three verbal quotes if the purchase is under the $10,000 limit and escalating to a more formal process as the dollar amount rises.

To keep prices in check, Jones said the village can take advantage of state contracts for some purchases. A state contract is an agreement negotiated by the state of New Mexico with a vendor for the purchase of items typically used by government agencies, such fleet vehicles and equipment used in public works departments.

As a state, New Mexico has greater bargaining power for purchases than a municipality the size of Bosque Farms and can strike a deal with a vendor to lower the per-unit cost to get government purchases from across the state. Any agency can make purchases through a state contract.

“We make sure we are spending our money conservatively. We try to at least keep the money in the county if we can,” she said. “But honestly, I’m not sure the public gives purchasing much thought. They are aware of the big projects, but I don’t think they realize the day-to-day part.”

And even the day-to-day, mundane purchases have to be done correctly, Jones said.

“There are general rules of procurement for most purchases,” she said. “Those rules protect John Q. Public because that money does not belong to us. When people think purchasing, they automatically think ‘government corruption.’ And that’s just not the case.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.