Next time you're stuck groping for proof that government plays tricks on us, relax. Tell the story of a beat-up old pickup truck for collecting leaves.
It's the story of Bill Reeves, resident of rural Manassas, historic site of the Battle of Bull Run and neighbor to the booming Washington suburb of Fairfax County. For 12 years, Bill Reeves and his pickup had won the county contracts to dispose of the fruits of autumn. But Bill Reeves just "lost" this year's contract despite the fact he bid only half the price of the "winner" -- $18 versus $34.94 per hour.
How can that happen, you say? Well, the Fairfax County purchasing departmet decided to play the same games that have cost taxpayers untold millions at both the state and federal levels.
What they did was write new specifications so detailed that only one company could qualify to do the work. Not content to tell bidders what had to be done, the county officials decided to stipulate precisely what was required to do it, namely:
Seven trucks (not six)
-- each diesel-powered (isn't regular gas still cheaper?); and
-- equipped with 2-way radios (even at 20 cents a call in Virginia, a public phone seems a bargain); and
-- built with tandem axles. (A single-axle truck had tipped over once at the county dump; so will a tandem-axle vehicle if you drive it over a steep enough hill.)
And, oh yes, each of the seven trucks had to be a 1976 model or later. (Was 1975 a particularly bad year in the Detroit vineyards?)
Now all of this shouldn't have surprised Bill Reeves if he reads the papers. GSA has had a few problems buying furniture. One of the main reasons: rigid specifications that drove off competitors and left Art Metal Company of Neward, N.J., with a third of a billion dollars in sales, about 80 percent of all federal purchases.
Likewise, a key allegation in an FBI investigation into Virginia state purchasing involved "wired" specifications written so as to favor certain companies. Reeves might also recall the 1975 U.S. Senate investigation into fraudulent military meat buying. The root problem: ridiculous specifications for hamburger and the like that left only a few -- very profitable -- firms bothering to bid at all.
As you might expect, though, Uncle Sam can outdo his kid brothers in government for real prize-winners. Until recently, to sell the feds a mousetrap, you had to comply witht 120,000 words of specifications telling you what wood to use in the base, how many coils to put in the spring and how to package and label the little rodent catchers. (A better mousetrap? Forget it, no matter how much better or cheaper.)
Much of that has been changed at the federal level over the last several years, though. In a concerted drive to get the government to buy more sensibly, over a thousand detailed specifications were thrown out and replaced with simplified performance and quality standards. The results have been astounding. Competition up, prices down and quality good or better than before.
Prices for volume purchases of fish sticks, for instance, dropped from $2.20 to $1.05 per pound. Diced beef prices dropped from $1.48 to $1.25 per pound. And after throwing out 20 pages of specifications for T-shirts, savings on the first batch bought totaled $797,000.
But Bill Reeves's pickup symbolizes an even sadder side of the story than just wasted money. Bill Reeves typifies the small, independent businessman -- and even not-so-small new businesses -- who have given the American economy its bounce and productivity through just plain hard work and new ideas and products. These folks have had an uphill fight with government over the years and nowhere is that more true than in the hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent by all levels of government every year.
On a personal note, Bill Reeves is in a jam. Dependent upon the exorbitant $6,000 he expected to earn again for the thirteenth year, he could only say, "I don't know what I'm going to do now."
But Veril H. Tielkemeier, director for the County's Solid Waste Disposal Division, displayed the usual warmth and understanding we've come to know and love in our public servants. He was quoted as saying, "If you can't meet the game [sic], you have to drop out and sit on the sidelines. There are always disgruntled people, every time you lose a bid."
Tielkemeier clearly fails to fathom that Bill Reeves didn't "lose" a game. The rules were rigged to give him all the sporting chance of a one-horse race.
Stories like this usually end, at best, with a lot of rhetorical sympathy from the politicians and exasperated explanations of why "there's nothing we can do" from the bureaucrats. That's still generally easier than trying to find a way to be responsive in the face of a jungle of administrative regulations.
But this is an election year for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. They could point out that purchasing departments have the right to reject all bids when only one company qualifies or the price is too high. They could suggest the county exercise the legal right generally reserved by government to terminate an award -- at no penalty -- and then recompete the contract, after rewriting the specifications to set job-performance instead of truck-design standards.
And while they're at it, the supervisors might also check on the county specifications for mousetraps.