Buy local? If only…

Sep. 23, 2013 @ 04:13 PM

In Durham these days, we love the concept of buying local.

It’s part of what drives the crowds at our area farmers’ markets – that, and a desire for fresher food grown by people we know. It is part of what fuels our love affair with local restaurants – those chain places may be fine, but we cherish knowing that our food tab is staying in the community.

Many shoppers earnestly try to make as many purchases as possible with local businesses and entrepreneurs, for the same reason. There’s even a campaign with a neat “Sustain-a-Bull” logo and bumper sticker.

Unfortunately, if you were to put one of those bumper stickers on a Durham police car, you probably wouldn’t be putting it on a car bought locally.

Our City Council, by and large sympathetic with the notion of doing business here, would like to buy its police-fleet vehicles from a Durham dealer.  But state law and the realities of the marketplace are preventing that.

To be sure, the motive behind the law is sound, an example of generally good-government restrictions. Durham – or any other municipality – is obligated to “award the contract to the lowest responsive, responsible vendor,” Finance Director David Boyd pointed out to the council last week as it debated bids for 22 new cars for the police.

A local dealer did bid on the contract. Sport Durst Chrysler Dodge Jeep said it would sell the city the cars for $583,990. But Butler Chrysler Dodge Jeep Inc. of Beaufort, S.C., said it could sell the city the cars for $556,822.

It can underbid the Durham dealer in large part because it has a contract to sell vehicles to the state, and that volume gives it leverage to drive down its cost from Dodge.

The city will save money with the Butler offer, and $27,168 isn’t small change. Still, it’s not quite 5 percent less than the Sport Durst bid, and it might well be a reasonable public policy decision to pay a bit more to help support a local business, with its practical benefits as well as its nod of government endorsement to buying locally.

Durham has sought a legislative change to allow it to favor local businesses, but local legislators have been reluctant to go that route for fear of setting up local-business preferences in other cities that would ultimately harm Durham firms.

The lowest-bidder law prevents handing out of contracts to family members or friends of town officials, an all-too-common practice in some cities in years gone by.  And the prospect of cities throwing up barriers to businesses from other cities and inviting retaliation is unsavory.

Still, we’d like to think there could be more flexibility – the option for a second-lowest bidder to triumph, perhaps, if the difference is less than 5 percent. We’d like to think our elected officials are capable of navigating such waters without turning this into contract cronyism.

And supporting the local economy with our local tax dollars would be a clear public good.