City, state urged to buy American --even if it costs

March 18, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

The state of Maryland and Baltimore City are looking for ways to change their "Buy Cheap" policies to "Buy American," following complaints about Chinese caps for highway workers and TV sets in City Hall stamped "Made in Japan."

A City Council bill introduced by 15 members a week ago would give preference, on items costing more than $300, to U.S.-made products. There would be exceptions for items not readily available from domestic manufacturers.

The city law department has expressed an unfavorable opinion of the bill, arguing that it would violate the requirement for competitive bidding and contract award to the lowest responsible bidder.

However, Mary Pat Clarke, the City Council president and principal sponsor, said the bill would be amended to make bid specifications require U.S. manufacture or assembly, rather than favor U.S. firms after bids are submitted.

"Now's the time to do it," Mrs. Clarke said. "It's cost-effective and promotes our local economy in a time of serious downturn." The mayor's office also supports the concept, as long as the city's Board of Estimates has some flexibility with certain bids, she said.

The state's interest was prompted by an angry letter to Gov. William Donald Schaefer from a labor union official about the Transportation Department's purchase of Adopt-a-Highway caps from China.

Tommy L. Pruett, international representative of the plumbers union, rebuked the state for purchasing about 10,000 of the colorful caps from a foreign maker while Mr. Schaefer was promoting patronage of area businesses through the Maryland With Pride program.

"Surely you could have found a Maryland or at least a U.S. provider" to produce the baseball caps given to groups that help clean up state roads, Mr. Pruett chided the governor.

Mr. Schaefer responded that the state "is obligated to award a state contract to the lowest qualified bidder" and noted that the Chinese caps cost $1.55 each, compared with $2.55 for a U.S.-made cap. The silk-screen printing on the cap was done in Maryland, he added.

That didn't satisfy Mr. Pruett or the Baltimore Metropolitan AFL-CIO, which saw in the state's decision an indifference toward the broader issue.

Carmen Papale of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union sent the governor price lists for U.S.-made caps, noting that they sell for $2.10 each.

"Don't wave the flag if you can't do something and mean it," said Mr. Papale. "There must be some provision in the state law to go with the domestic producer if it's close enough in price and the quality is comparable.

"I've got to believe something can be done, not just for caps but for other products," the union business manager said.

Daryl C. Plevy, the governor's labor aide, said she was investigating to see what could be done to favor domestic firms within existing state laws.

"I don't know the answer now," she said. "I would hope we could help these [domestic] companies."

Procurement provisions are complex, she said, and may vary with the source of the money spent.

State officials say there is no blanket preference for Maryland or U.S. suppliers in the procurement rules. To establish such a preference would invite retaliation by other states and protests of bids that could drag through the courts, noted Sandra Reynold of the Board of Public Works staff.

State law permits Maryland agencies to purchase U.S.-made steel products if their price is no more than 20 percent above the lowest foreign bid.

Ms. Plevy recalled that Mr. Schaefer and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein expressed concern four years ago when six huge cranes for the Port of Baltimore were purchased from a Japanese supplier instead of a U.S. company. The foreign price was $7 million cheaper than the closest U.S. bid, and state procurement laws required acceptance of the Japanese bid.

At that time, Mr. Schaefer stated: "I want a full analysis of why Americans can't compete and what we can do about it." He called for "innovative ways" to "have Americans do this."

City Council President Clarke said the idea for her bill sprang from a party she recently attended, at which United Auto Workers union officials complained that the city was buying foreign vehicles and an area businessman claimed that the city shunned his U.S.-made television sets for foreign models.

"They were both saying the same thing. It was obvious that we should support local companies and workers," she said.

"The city simply hasn't had a policy, and we should."

No figures are available on the amount the municipality spends on foreign products each year, she said.

However, purchases of big-ticket items like autos, computers and video equipment -- where foreign manufacturers are highly competitive -- would certainly be affected by the proposed law, Mrs. Clarke said.

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