York County tractor purchase renews debate over local bid preference

adouglas@heraldonline.comDecember 18, 2012 

An argument in the York County Council chambers over whether to buy a John Deere or Bobcat skid-steer tractor renewed an on-going debate over the county’s purchasing trends.

Council members on Monday voted to buy a $26,799 John Deere tractor. Councilmen Bruce Henderson and Curwood Chappell opposed the purchase.

The topic sparked controversy because Bobcat of Charlotte underbid the Rock Hill John Deere supplier by about $1,000 for a similar tractor.

Bobcat is widely considered the best brand of skid-steer tractors and submitted the lowest bid, said Scott McAteer, a Bobcat of Charlotte sales representative.

A few council members said they respected Bobcat’s products, but they said public works employees who use the machines “were not totally satisfied” with the Bobcat they have now.

York County has spent about $8,200 over the past 10 years for repairs on the Bobcat – more than repairs on other machine brands such as New Holland and John Deere, the employees said.

The Bobcat broke, McAteer said, because employees were using it for tasks it was not meant for. Public works employees said the Bobcat had been used properly and its lift arms have cracked three times, costing almost $5,000 to replace.

Chappell said the county should buy the new machine from the lowest bidder, not based entirely on the recommendation of the staff.

Councilman Bump Roddey tried to steer the council’s tractor debate on Monday to talks about giving local businesses competitive advantage. Roddey wants a preference policy similar to the city of Rock Hill’s, he said.

Preference policies allow cities and counties to award contracts to local businesses even if their bid isn’t the initial lowest bid. A county policy change, Roddey said, would require local vendors to match the lowest bid.

The council can support local taxpayers without a given local advantage on bids, Councilman David Bowman said. Giving local businesses preference, Bowman said, wouldn’t necessarily benefit York County because many county residents work in Charlotte.

McAteer, the Bobcat of Charlotte salesman, told the council he has lived in York County all his life.

The county tries to spend locally, but local businesses don’t always bid on contracts, county purchasing director Bill White said. Car purchase contracts especially don’t get as much attention from local bidders as they once did.

“We began to see a decline in local automotive bidding when the economy started its downward turn and dealer inventory was depleted or hard to obtain,” White said.

Fewer than half of York County’s contracts attracted local bidders over the past two years. In instances where they competed, local businesses won the county’s contract less than half of the time.

York County has spent about $380,000 over the past two months to replace some of its fleet. The only local bidders were one car dealer and one John Deere supplier.

Vehicle purchases normally take place at the end of the year, coinciding with the state’s process of awarding state contracts for certain materials and products.

State contract dealers are generally are able to win the county’s business, White said, because they expect to sell cars statewide and are able to lower their prices through manufacturer kick-backs.

State contracts often leave local businesses at a competitive disadvantage, said Claude Burns, president of Burns Chevrolet in Rock Hill.

Bidding for state contracts, he said, requires dealerships to submit specifications for cars with only basic features. If the county or city purchaser needs add-ons, it usually increases the dealers’ profit beyond the state contract price.

When cars are needed immediately, Burns said, local car dealers can offer their best price when manufacturer incentives for fleet sales are applied.

York County did not get car manufacturer fleet discounts this year because the purchasing department didn’t have fleet purchase numbers. When Burns Chevrolet competed for county contracts in November, the dealership’s staff realized York County wasn’t maximizing its buying power through a fleet purchase number.

Without using a fleet number, Burns said, York County made it difficult for his business to offer the lowest price and win contracts.

White said the county plans to take advantage of those savings when purchasing in 2013.

“It will be interesting to see if next year the fleet numbers beef up our bidding activity with local dealers,” he said.

It benefits all businesses, White said, to register on the county’s purchasing website and stay informed of competitive bids.

The combination of manufacturer fleet discounts and a local preference policy might get more local dealers “back into the game,” Roddey said.

“It gives them a glimmer of hope to get some of these contracts.”

Anna Douglas 803-329-4068

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