Commission Debates Bid Requirement for County Schools

Huntsville, TN (2018-11-19) On Monday night, members of the Scott County Commission held a lively debate over whether to increase the threshold on purchases that must be vetted through a formal bidding process.  The body was mulling over a request by the Scott County School System to raise the current limit of $10,000 to $25,000 for purchases made by the district.  In the end, no action was taken.

At its regular monthly meeting Monday night, the Commission took up a proposal by the Scott County School System to raise the threshold for individual purchases that must be submitted for the formal bidding process to $25,000. Under the current policy, any purchase made in excess of $10,000 by any county department must be submitted to the county Finance Department, which shall seek blind bids from vendors to complete the order. With the proposal brought to the Commission, the amount needed to trigger the bid process would increase to $25,000; however, for purchases anticipated to cost between $10,000 and $25,000, the Finance Department would still be required to obtain, when possible, at least three written quotes before completing the purchase.  As a matter of procedure, the Finance Department normally attempts to secure more than one bid on any purchase; however, sometimes goods and services needed by the county are only provided by one vendor.

The threshold was recently increased by the Tennessee General Assembly to allow counties to make more costly purchases without having to seek public bids or quotes.  The local request would have only affected the school system, and no other department of county government.

As goods and services grow costlier, the school system wanted to increase the threshold to avoid undue delays caused by the formal bidding process, which can take up to three months to complete.  Recently a broken HVAC system in the kitchen at Scott High School took three months to repair because the fix cost more than $18,000. In an emergency, the county can forego the formal bid process, but those cases are rare. Declaration of an emergency requires an immediate risk to property or health.  “In my experience, it is very difficult to get the State to call it an emergency,” County Attorney John Beaty stated.  While the failure occurred in the hottest months of the year, the outage couldn’t be declared an emergency, and the school system had to bid the replacement unit.

Some Commissioners expressed reservations about increasing the threshold, calling it a reduction in oversight. “I feel that by doing this, we are decreasing the transparency of government,” Commissioner Kenny Chadwell said.  Others feared the increase would lead to other departments of county government requesting the same threshold.  Under the county’s centralized financial management structure, individual departments of county government cannot independently seek and be permitted to arbitrarily increase the threshold.

The bid threshold has changed twice in the last two decades, going from $2,000 to $3,000, and again from $3,000 to the current $10,000.

In the end, no action was taken.