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Cook County needs to reassess its no-bid policy

Friday, April 29, 2005
Daily Southtown

THE ISSUE: Cook County officials back $9.3 million in no-bid business.
WE SAY: The no-bid policy needs to be revised or voters should send those who support it packing.

Imagine that you are a businessman. You need to make seven important purchases that could cost nearly $10 million. You have a purchasing agent to handle these transactions for you. You'd like to ensure that this purchasing agent is making smart decisions with your money. You could do one of two things: You could take his word for it or you could demand to see evidence that the agent is seeking the best deal possible.

You'd probably choose the latter option.

Now let's say you are a taxpayer in Cook County. It is with your money that seven purchases need to be made that will cost millions of dollars. In this instance, your purchasing agent is Cook County Board President John Stroger. But unlike the hypothetical businessman above, you are not given the option to make sure you're getting the best deal. You must rely on your purchasing agent's word for it.

Make sense?

It doesn't to us, either.

But that in fact is what is happening these days in the Cook County Board chambers. On Tuesday, seven construction-related professional-service contracts totaling $9.3 million were approved by a board committee and likely will breeze past the entire county board next month. There was no bidding for the contracts, but each contained that key element that is essential to anyone who wants to do business with the county: Stroger's recommendation.

As the Daily Southtown pointed out in stories Tuesday and Wednesday, Cook County government, using home rule powers, is set up in such a way that bidding is not required for professional-services contracts, for professions like architects, engineers and lawyers. All that's required are the board president's recommendation and the approval of enough sycophants on the board, and the deal's done. And there almost always are enough sycophants on the board.

This isn't to say the companies that are approved for county business don't do an adequate job. However, we taxpayers are not given proof that we're getting the best deal. That's not the case in most local governments in Illinois, like Orland Park, for example, where competitive bidding helps control costs, officials say. Even Chicago seeks bids for such services as engineers and architects. The bids are evaluated by a committee of administration officials and approved by the chief procurement officer. In most instances, the mayor and city council play no role. Stroger insists he and his staff are cognizant of costs and performance when these contracts are awarded, but there appear to be other factors involved.

Stroger says the county looks for "people who have dealt with governments." In other words, his friends. It's fine to seek experienced firms, but does that mean you ignore those firms that have never done work for the government, even if they might be able to do it just as well and do it for less?

To understand the process further, all seven firms have made contributions to political campaigns in Illinois since 1994, one firm donating $280,000. Four of the seven firms have contributed to Stroger's campaign kitty.

It's not as if the county is purchasing a box of nails or a crate of light bulbs here. These seven contracts range from $379,000 to $3 million. Deals that lucrative should be let out for bid, not rewarded because of who knows whom inside the county building. The county has to rethink this entire no-bid process, but the chances of any dramatic changes occurring are slim. Unless voters wise up, the odds of true reform coming to the Cook County Board are about the same as Britney Spears being elected pope.

Stroger and the county commissioners went through quite an angst-ridden budget process a few months ago. With money so tight, you'd think everyone would want to get the best deal possible. And even in the best of times, taxpayers deserve elected officials who spend their money wisely.

We scolded Stroger and the board earlier this month when they ridiculed two Republican board members who had the sense to demand that a hefty forest preserve contract be examined more closely before it was approved. (That $3.9 million contract, incidentally, was with McDonough Associates, a Stroger-connected firm that Tuesday was recommended to receive one of the seven contracts, this one for $2.3 million.) Those two commissioners voiced objections again Tuesday and were basically told to shut up.

It's appalling that our leaders are so cavalier with our money. If they're not going to take their jobs more seriously, maybe we taxpayers can take our jobs more seriously the next time we step into a voting booth.

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