Audit of county contracts troubles council members

Minimum for no-bid purchasing is raised despite their concerns

Spending practices under scrutiny

April 20, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Council members are raising questions about the county's purchasing practices in the wake of an internal audit that showed several examples of improper procedure and unchecked spending.

Council members expressed their concern about the practices during debate Monday night over a bill that might normally have passed with little discussion. The bill raised the minimum amount of a purchase that must be subject to competitive bidding from $10,000 to $25,000.

Although council members ultimately approved the bill, they said they did not like giving county purchasers more freedom at a time when their practices are under scrutiny.

"It seems like we might be putting the cart before the horse to liberalize the process when we don't have strict, clear procedures in place," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis-area Democrat.

The criticism followed a work session last week during which council members reviewed the audit and subjected county officials to hours of questioning.

County officials defended their practices, however, and said the increase was long overdue. Purchasing rules were last revised in 1985. Purchasing officials also promised to have a revised manual of procedures - something council members are pushing for - ready by September.

"It will be far superior to what we have now," said Fred Schram, who oversees the county purchasing department. "We want this done as much as you do."

The audit, released last month, detailed concerns about contracts that were not subject to competitive bidding and purchases that exceeded approved limits.

The review, conducted by County Auditor Teresa Sutherland and covering a period between July 2003 and June 2004, identified nine instances in which proper procedures weren't followed in the purchasing department.

It said the department might have overpaid for emergency fill-in services after trash hauling companies defaulted on their contracts with the county. It also said the department failed to document bids on contracts that should have been competitively auctioned, and that officials didn't adequately document insurance on many contracts.

The department processed more than 20,000 contracts and payments totaling $266 million in 2004.

County purchasing officials said that given the volume of purchases and the amount of documentation required for each, the report was hardly damning. Schram said his department's responses to the specific criticisms in the audit showed that county officials acted properly in most cases.

The bill raising the minimum price for bidding was drafted before the audit was released, and council members said they voted for the bill because the underlying logic, that products and services have grown more expensive in 20 years, held up.

"I really believe this is correct," said council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican. But Dillon asked Schram what leverage the council would have to force the purchasing department to revise its practices if it passed the bill Monday.

Schram replied that he would stake his career on his promise that a new procedure manual for the department would be presented to the council by September.

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