MARC CHASE: Open bidding needed, even if horse pushes cart

2013-09-24T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Open bidding needed, even if horse pushes cartMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
September 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Lake County officials might have placed the cart before the horse in their decision to first pass a local income tax before further exploring ways to cut costs.

But our county government leaders are showing a glimpse of fiscal responsibility under a new push to seek competitive bids for some of the county's most expensive service contracts.

So even though it's absolutely being handled in backward fashion -- and we shouldn't be surprised a horse is pushing, rather than pulling, the cart in Lake County -- taxpayers should really be cheering on this effort.

Or perhaps the better way of saying it is Lake County taxpayers should be demanding our county commissioners follow through with this open-bid process, particularly in the wake of county government voting to bleed a new 1.5 percent income tax from residents' paychecks.

At issue in part are three of the county's most expensive contracts -- for county employee health insurance, heating and cooling in county buildings, and the county's computer and information network.

County employee health insurance eclipses nearly all other local government expenditures, totaling about $30 million annually.

So in this age of cash-strapped government budgets, it only makes sense for county officials to shop around for a more competitively priced plan. The same vendor, Professional Claims Management, has held this contract since 2005, and county finance experts believe a cost savings of $2 million to $4.5 million could be realized under a less expensive network.

Those millions could be redirected to more pressing infrastructure projects or -- don't pretend you don't hear this, county leaders -- property tax relief.

Too many major county contracts have been perpetually renewed each budget session without considering whether taxpayers are getting the best, most efficiently provided bang for their buck.

The same Milwaukee, Wis., firm, Johnson Controls, has overseen climate control in county buildings since the 1970s, for instance. Cenifax, of Schererville, has controlled computer and information tech for county government since 1992.

Those two contracts combined cost taxpayers about $4.1 million annually.

Now the commissioners have decided to open up a "request for qualifications" for all of those contracts -- a fancy way inviting other vendors to strut their stuff and show how their services could provide more quality at a better price than the existing contracts.

The request is a mere precursor to actually seeking competitive bids, and it doesn't guarantee the county will dump the existing vendors. Those existing vendors will have an opportunity to be just as competitive as any other challengers who step up to the bidding plate.

County Commissioners Gerry Scheub, Mike Repay and Roosevelt Allen are showing some political wisdom by initiating this open-bid process. Now they need to show the fortitude to see it through.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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