EDITORIAL: Should local companies have preference over out-of-towners?

On Thursday the Bibb County Board of Education found itself in a situation where both sides in a disagreement were right -- but the wrong decision was reached.

The issue at hand was a bid for kitchen equipment at Heard Elementary School. The low bid was by Trimark Strategic. The Albany-based company was $9,000 lower than local bidder Direct South. Board member Lester Miller urged the board to give the bid to the local company, while board members Lynn Farmer and Thelma Dillard disagreed.

Miller is right to bring the issue of giving local companies preference when awarding bids. It’s done all the time all over the country.

Some communities award local companies a bid if they can come within 5 percent of the lowest non-local bidder. Other municipalities give preferences to firms that promise to hire local workers or disabled workers or have apprenticeship programs.

The state of Georgia even has codified a form of preference in state law, O.C.G.A. §20-2-500, which allows school boards to give Georgia manufacturers and producers preference over out-of-state firms. State code O.C.G.A. 36-84-1, proposed by Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, allows other government agencies to give in-state firms preferences. Atlanta has a Local Business Preference Program.

Farmer and Dillard are right in their opposition. While the school board’s policy ­-- adopted in 2013 -- uses the state 20-2-500 language, last we checked, Albany is within Georgia’s borders. And the board’s policy does not include any other local preference language.

The board decided to reopen the bidding process, which will delay the Heard project even though the board cut the time frame for accepting bids from 30 to 15 days. And while Farmer and Dillard are afraid that having a local preference could drive up costs because out-of-town firms might refuse to bid, by reopening the kitchen equipment bid the board has essentially done the same thing in this case.

Submitting a bid costs a company money and time. The local company now knows where its bid must land, and the Albany company, seeing the handwriting on the wall, may decide not to bid again.

Local preferences are fine. However, in this case, it’s not in the policy. And violating policy could land the district in court. If the board wants to change the policy’s language, that’s another discussion that can’t be accomplished for this bid or others already in the pipeline.