For the first time, the Carroll commissioners are considering adopting a formal written policy outlining procedures for purchasing, soliciting and reviewing bids and awarding contracts -- decades after several surrounding jurisdictions adopted theirs.
In purchasing supplies or equipment or contracting for services or construction, the county has operated under an informal procedure guided more by established routine than specific rules and regulations.
Bureau of Purchasing Chief Thomas F. Crum said it has been his goal to develop a county purchasing policy. The office adheres to broad procurement guidelines established by the state.
The only official policy guiding procurement in Carroll is a section in the Carroll County Code that requires the commissioners to advertise for bids for purchases or jobs exceeding $12,000, and to award contracts to the "lowest responsible bidder whose bid is considered reasonable."
Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties adopted purchasing policies and detailed regulation manuals 20 to 35 years ago as they converted from commission to charter governments. Frederick and Harford counties also have had regulations for years, said their purchasing directors.
"You always like to see a policy in black and white rather than an unwritten agreement between commissioners or staff," said Carroll Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy. "It's probably long overdue."
The purpose of the policy is to treat all vendors and contractors fairly, to ensure that taxpayers get the best deal for their money and to "provide safeguards for maintaining a procurement system of quality and integrity." It outlines the responsibilities and powers of the purchasing office.
The policy would help assure the public and those competing for contracts that the county is "doing everything ethically," said Crum. It also would provide a legal basis in case of challenges, he said.
County attorneys and finance officials have been developing the policy for about three years.
"An elephant probably gives birth faster than this came about," County Attorney Chuck Thompson told the commissioners.
Jon R. Buck, co-chairman of the board writing a charter for Carroll government, said he wants the charter to include a provision requiring a centralized purchasing system. The charter, which will be an election referendum, would serve as Carroll's constitution.
"This should have been enacted 10, 15, 20 years ago. It's fundamental," said Buck, owner of a Sykesville engineering firm that has bid for county contracts.
The commissioners' consideration of a purchasing policy and the current drive for charter government may not be entirely coincidental, said Buck. "I think they're scrambling to fill in."
Buck is critical of the current procurement practice: "It contributes too much to an inner circle, a 'good ol' boy' network."
He said the proposed policy is a "good start" but advocated including preferences for local businesses and criteria for evaluating the quality and long-term value of services and products.
Lippy said there could be legal complications in offering preferences for local businesses, but added that the commissioners should try to hire or purchase from county firms if it's "justifiable."