County Commission weighs pros and cons of local vendor preference

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — On Tuesday, the Indian River Board of County Commissioners will take up the issue of whether or not to give local providers of goods and services a chance to match the bids of vendors outside the region when competing for County business. However, local seems to be in the eye of the beholder.  Commissioners consider not only Indian River County local, but also St. Lucie, Martin, Osceola, Brevard and Okeechobee counties, according to Purchasing Director Jerry Davis. The text of the local ordinance itself, in fact, was partially imported from St. Lucie County.

“Some people are going to be upset that they think that’s not local enough,” Davis said.

The public hearing Tuesday is the result of this issue bubbling up the past few months since the economy has taken a dive. Commissioner Joe Flescher first brought it up June 2, following a memo to County Attorney Will Collins on May 27 requesting the County take this posture regarding local businesses. Flescher squeaked the motion through 3-2 and staff was directed to conduct further research and draft changes to the purchasing section of the County code.

“We have to start somewhere. It’s my feeling that we need this tool in the toolbox, this initial element to excite the local economy,” Flesher said. “We are watching mom and pop shops disappear and when they’re gone they are gone forever. I’m watching companies fold and small businesses disappear. What I believe is that this is another tool to assist us and to assist them.”

Flescher said he obviously hopes the ordinance passes in its current form, but he’s open to suggestions that might make the measure work better for local businesses. The commissioner has heard from many members of the business community about this issue and they favor the regional approach because, as neighboring municipalities adopt similar local vendor preference policies, Indian River’s approach of including adjacent counties will help preserve their “local” status in places like St. Lucie County.

“You can look in so many areas where buying local not only helps the economy but makes sense. I should hope we have the foresight to give the local economy another advantage. We have to be diverse and put as many tools forward,” Flescher said. “If we do nothing, nothing will be the same. I believe this addresses some of the factors that affect the local vendor. There is also a mindset when a local business applies that the pencil might get sharper.”

On June 16, under public comments, Brian Heady poked a stick into this beehive, provoking sharp comments from Commissioner Gary Wheeler, who is opposed to a local preference policy under the grounds that it is protectionist. Commissioner Bob Solari also opposed the concept of a local preference ordinance when it came up in June.

“I have a lot of problems with it,” Solari said. “First of all, it’s a form of protectionism and if you look at the Great Depression, it showed that protectionism doesn’t work. It’s bad for people outside the county and it’s bad for people inside the county.”

Solari said the ordinance would detract from what the local chambers of commerce are trying to do to bring new businesses into the area. He thinks that eventually, the local vendor preference would discourage out-of-town firms from investigating Indian River County and, as word got around and more and more locals got the opportunity to match bids, non-local companies would stop completing bid packets. This, in turn, might reduce the amount of information and input into capital projects the County could glean from the review of these proposals. Solari also cited the example of Geosyntec, a firm contracted with the county for waste management services that ended up setting up shop locally and employing local people.

“If we do this, we’re giving up the County’s competitive advantage,” he said. “We’re saying we don’t want your business.”

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