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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Monday, June 15, 2015 by Jo Clifton
Houston comes out against sole-source contracts
At the June 4 City Council meeting, Council Member Ora Houston voted against an Austin Water Utility contract with Austin White Lime that would allow the company to provide about 21.5 tons of lime per year to soften the city’s water. She also voted against three other contracts that were designated “sole-source” by the Purchasing Department.
When asked about her votes, Houston told the Austin Monitor, “I’m going to be voting no on all of those (contracts) that don’t have participation goals for small businesses, women and minorities.”
However, the contract with Austin White Lime was not sole-source, as Purchasing Officer James Scarboro explained to Council. He said the item was let out for bids, but only one company made a bid.
Council Member Sheri Gallo, who was concerned about the apparent lack of competition in the bidding process, asked how many notices had been sent out to potential bidders. Scarboro said there had been 78.
But Gallo told Scarboro that her staff had done some research and found a company in Fort Worth that does the same kind of work.
“(W)ith this particular purchase, since 2004 we only received bids from this particular company,” Scarboro said. “Because of the frequency of the deliveries, proximity from the contractor to the water locations is a necessity, and also the type of truck that they use has to have certain equipment so that it can deliver the material to the various water treatment plants.”
AWU Assistant Director Jane Burazer told the Monitor that it would be difficult and expensive for a company as far away as Fort Worth to make daily deliveries, as Austin White Lime does, so it is unlikely it would make a competitive bid.
Scarboro further explained that because of the large sum of money involved — more than $13.7 million for a 24-month contact with two 12-month extensions — the city did not authorize the contract as sole-source.
The city uses lime to soften the water and has done so since at least 1924. Burazer said the product used in the softening process decreases the hardness of the water by about 50 percent. The city uses 1,000 pounds of lime per million gallons of water. Suddenly changing the formula or eliminating the lime could create problems for both residential customers and businesses, she said.
Houston told the Monitor, “My vote does not stop it from passing, so I don’t know why I have to … there’s so many things about the process that people in the community are concerned about. That’s why I keep asking about how can scopes be broken down. … There are other lime companies around. Sometimes we just use the same people we’ve always used” because staff is more comfortable with them.
Houston said she wants to make staff think more about using women and minority contractors.
Houston also voted against three sole-source contracts, one for the Library Department and two for Austin/Travis County EMS.
Smart, Shamard, chief of staff for Austin/Travis County EMS, explained that the city uses a specific patented medical device in its ambulances to resuscitate patients in cardiac arrest. The vendor the city currently uses, he said, is the only one that sells that device.
“The medical director has selected the use of that device,” Shamard said, “because research shows patients who have use of this device enjoy better outcomes.”
Houston asked, “So every EMS company in the United States uses this?”
No, replied Shamard, but there are no other manufacturers of this particular medical device. “The medical director has chosen to use it because the science says that the outcome is greater if you do use it,” he said.
“OK,” Houston said. “So I understand that is a preference.”
She also objected to another sole-source contract because, she said, EMS already has similar devices and the new devices would work with the old ones.
The Library Department contract concerned the purchasing of recorded books, which anyone with a library card can check out. Brenda Branch, director of the department, told Council that the authors of the books only contract with the vendor selected for the city contract.
Council Member Don Zimmerman objected, saying people can get audio books from other sources. Council Member Leslie Pool told Zimmerman that the difference between those sources and library books is that the latter are free. But Zimmerman rejected that argument because, he said, books are not free to taxpayers. Houston did not comment on the item but voted against the contract.
This story has been corrected
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
Austin/Travis County EMS: The Emergency Medical Service for Austin and Travis County. Co-managed by the City of Austin and Travis county.