On May 16, Philadelphia voters will be asked if the City Charter should be changed from requiring that most city contracts be awarded to the “lowest responsible bidder” to permitting the city to consider other subjective factors to award such contracts — based on something called the “best value.” Anyone who cares about our city should vote a resounding NO!
When awarding contracts, it is easy to determine who the lowest bidder is. You just look at the bid. It is an objective standard. It is fair. Most important it facilitates the city’s taxpayers’ getting the best value for their money. The lowest bid for the work required is, by my definition, the “best value.”
What city officials want to do is use a more subjective standard. In other words, they want to be able to use their discretion in passing out our tax dollars.
What could go wrong? Lots.
Here’s the standard that should be used: Only contract out for services and products that the city needs and pay as little as possible for the goods and services needed. Period. That’s how the current structure is set up. If there are problems with it, the problems are in the enforcement or in how the bids are developed.
What’s really going on here? Looking at things through rose-colored glasses and assuming good intentions, the people in charge of your money want to include factors other than cost. Inclusion. More minority vendors. More female-owned businesses. Local businesses. Seems reasonable. That being said, I believe that we should not care who performs the services or provides the goods. At best, such subjective factors should be a tiebreaker. We should care about obtaining the best goods and services for the lowest cost. In other words, the current system.
If you want to improve the quality of life for Philadelphians, work to keep taxes as low as possible while providing the services that our citizens need. That would encourage businesses and taxpayers to locate here and bring the jobs we so desperately need.
Let’s take off the rose-colored glasses. This is Philadelphia, after all. Is the best-value approach pandering to interest groups? Yes, it is. The politicians can go to the winners in their new subjective process and take credit, ensuring their reelection. Everybody wins. Except, of course, the taxpayers. And the impoverished who don’t have access to the jobs that the higher taxes chase away.
Let’s be even more cynical. How many Philly politicians have gone to jail for corruption? You probably can’t come up with a number, but you know it’s a lot. There’s a lot of money riding on the awarding of contracts with a best-value standard. The more subjective the process, the harder it is to police. It is tougher to uncover the corruption when officials can cover up the quid pro quo with made-up factors.
The question on the ballot is a simple one sentence that unfairly summarizes the actual language of the proposed amendment. The amendment itself includes vague and wishy-washy language vesting the procurement commissioner, who serves at the pleasure of the mayor and City Council, with broad discretion to set criteria that have nothing to do with getting the best price for needed goods or services. My personal favorite is where it allows the “incorporation of city contracting objectives,” but allows them to make up the objectives as they go along rather than incorporate standards into the charter.
This is not just a Philadelphia issue. Government at every level, even when operating with the best of intentions, screws it up when it tries to pick the winners and losers in the economic development game. Low-interest loans for certain businesses. Government grants. Set-asides. Targeted tax breaks. They are all at core inefficient and discriminatory.
The best economic development program is lowering everyone’s taxes. Let’s keep trying to do that by voting NO on Charter Change Question No. 1.
Matt Wolfe is a Republican ward leader in West Philadelphia. Matthew@Wolfe.org