In 1976 the D.C. City Council, faced with reports of waste estimated to be in the millions of dollars, told then Mayor Walter Washington to revamp the city's purchasing and warehousing system. The Council has waited eight years. Little has happened.
Now five council members, frustrated by the inaction of Washington's successor, Marion Barry, say that they are ready to take matters into their own hands and legislate an overhaul of the system.
But to win their reforms they will have to overcome a major lobbying effort by the mayor, and his possible veto. "It's really going to be a big battle," predicted one administration official, who asked not to be named.
The bill, sponsored by Council member William Spaulding (D-Ward 5) and expected to come up for a vote Dec. 4, marks the first legislative attempt to deal with a long history of waste and mismanagement in the city's purchasing and warehousing system.
The measure attempts to implement the recommendations of numerous studies dating back to at least 1959 that call for the consolidation of purchasing and warehousing operations under one centralized authority -- a move that, according to the studies, could save millions of dollars a year.
The legislation would mandate the transfer of what may amount to hundreds of employes now scattered throughout various city agencies to the Department of Administrative Services. It also calls for developing a computerized system for maintaining purchasing data, so that purchasing officials can determine the amounts of various supplies that the city uses in a year and how much they should order.
The majority of the council is undecided about the bill. Barry is not, according to Pauline Schneider, his director of intergovernmental relations. Schneider said that the mayor is "very strongly opposed" to the bill's attempt to dictate how he should delegate purchasing power and allocate staff. If the bill passes, she added, she will recommend that Barry veto it.
Still, the bill's supporters are cautiously optimistic. "Committee recommendations are usually followed in our council," said Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), a member of the Government Operations Committee that passed the bill. "I think the bill is long overdue," said Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7).
Unlike surrounding jurisdictions and other cities like Baltimore and Los Angeles, the District allows individual agencies to handle much of their own purchasing and all of their own warehousing.
Barry defends the District's decentralized system on the grounds that it ensures goods and services will be on hand whenever needed. Groups ranging from congressionally-appointed committees to the General Accounting Office repeatedly have criticized the system as wasteful and purchasing experts describe it as inherently prone to abuse.
In a series of stories last August, The Washington Post reported that the city may be losing as much as $5 million to $7 million a year through chaotic and piecemeal purchasing methods. A Post survey of commonly purchased supplies showed that the city regularly pays an average of between 26 percent to 79 percent more than governments in surrounding jurisdictions.
The Post also found agency officials regularly circumvent rules meant to ensure competitive bidding in making their purchases. The Department of General Services, for instance, last year awarded more than $500,000 in repair jobs to contractors whose competition included companies that were related, a defunct firm, and phantoms who bid in the name of a dead man and companies whose owners deny they sought the work.
Otis Troupe, the D.C. auditor, said last week that he plans to conduct a preliminary review of bids accepted by General Services, now a part of the Department of Public Works, within the next few days. He said a full-scale audit will commence "within a week or two if there's reasonable cause to support the allegations."
Troupe's review comes on top of a federal investigation of purchases and contract awards by the Department of Employment Services. Yesterday, the agency's former chief fiscal officer, Crystal Willis, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of fraud for her participation in a scheme to bill the department for $6,000 worth of electrical fixtures, some of which were used in her home.
Provoked by reports of these and other purchasing problems, the five-member Committee on Government Operations this fall added to a long-pending piece of legislation a provision calling for a centralized purchasing system. The committee passed the bill by a 4-0 vote this month with one member absent.
"Procurement is a serious problem in the District of Columbia . . . and sometimes the only time we can get the mayor to move is legislatively," said Nadine Winter (D-Ward 6), a member of the committee. "I think this will cut down on the allegations and innuendos" of improper purchases by city departments, she said.
Jarvis said that the measure is partly a response to complaints by business owners, who are confused by the city's far-flung network of purchasing offices and officers. "They simply want a more central place to deal with the government," Jarvis said. "And it's simply more efficient in terms of buying in bulk. I think the impact of it will be to save money."
Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2) said his staff is reviewing the bill, but said he believes that "anything we do would be an improvement. I've never felt we've gotten a dollar's worth of value for a dollar spent."
"If nothing else," said Crawford, "this bill will show we recognize there are problems. I think it goes a long way toward addressing some of them."
Barry has dismissed reports of high prices paid by District agencies as unproven, and said that no system is foolproof against abuses "if you have people who are bent on beating the system."
Still, he has said there is a need for some "tightening up" and "fine-tuning." In recent months, there's been some indication of such an effort. In October Barry issued an executive order instructing the Department of Administrative Services -- the closest thing the city has to a central purchasing agency -- to review all purchase orders by other departments. A similar order issued three years ago by Barry's office was never followed.
The Department of Administrative Services has made plans to combine more supply purchases by different departments, such as construction supplies and office furniture, in order to get better prices.
And the Department of Public Works sent a representative to question Alexandria's purchasing director about his buying methods after The Post survey showed Alexandria paid substantially less than the District for supplies like auto parts.
Jose Gutierrez, a Barry appointee who heads the Department of Administrative Services, has said in the past that while efforts such as those now under way will bring limited improvements, "for a city this size you need a centralized system."
Despite his views, Gutierrez said last week he has not tried to sway Barry either way on the Spaulding bill. "I think the mayor needs to decide how he wants the system to work," he said.