‘Local preference’ in bid process sparks debate

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

It’s only been a few weeks since Bob McHatton Jr. returned to local politics in Bridgton, but already he’s stirred up the pot by his strong belief that local businesses should be favored even when they’re not the lowest bidder, as long as the bids are close in price.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Mark Lopez challenged that thinking, suggesting that such a stance sets a precedent that will force selectmen to find ways to defend against charges of cronyism.

Lopez referred to the board’s vote, at their previous meeting, to award the bid for insurance coverage to Chalmers Insurance Group of Bridgton, instead of a bid that was $2,300 lower made by the Maine Municipal Association’s Risk Management Services. The bids were $45,092 from Chalmers, and $42,691 from MMA.

“The policies are substantially similar,” and at a time when the mil rate has increased by 40 cents, a $2,300 difference should not be “marginalized” in favor of buying locally, said Lopez.

McHatton remained undeterred, saying he is taking each bid process on a case-by-case basis, on its own merit, and believes that Chalmers more than makes up for the difference in terms of its contribution to the local tax base, the number of people it employs and the charitable funding it provides to the local community.

“When I was elected, one of my main goals as selectman is trying to help local businesses,” McHatton said. Selectman Woody Woodward agreed, saying it is reasonable to factor in the fact that Chalmers has provided the town’s insurance for many years, and has been quite responsive to the town’s needs. Chairman Paul Hoyt said he felt MMA’s lower bid should be honored, because “$2,300 is a lot of money.”

In the end, the vote was 3-2 in favor of Chalmers, with Hoyt and Selectman Doug Taft opposed.

Sewer Committee member Glen “Bear” Zaidman joined Lopez in questioning the decision, pointing out that Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz told his committee that favoring local or long-timer providers “is a line we can’t walk.”

Berkowitz said once upon a time, a town always went with the lowest bidder, but in recent years a “local preference policy” has emerged. When he came to Bridgton, he introduced the term “lowest responsible bidder” to allow the board to have a certain amount of discretion toward local preference, and that such a stance “has been consistently upheld” when the low bidder has challenged a board’s decision to pass them over in favor of a local business.

“The hardest part is how do you determine when to go with it,” and when not to, he said. “It’s a very, very difficult line to walk,” said Berkowitz.

Resident Chuck Renneker sided with Lopez on the issue, saying it would be too easy to allow “personal relationships” to intervene when deciding how the town’s money should be spent. “I think it has to be a black and white policy,” Renneker said.

But resident Lega Medcalf said Chalmer’s Commercial Agent Alletta Kimball has been very helpful to the Bridgton Historical Society — and that level of service might not exist with MMA, which is located in Augusta.

“She explained all the intricacies of getting a liquor license,” Medcalf said. “If we only allow the lowest bidder, we might to outsource everything to China,” she said.

Selectman Doug Taft said it would have been helpful, had representatives of both agencies appeared before the board to answer questions, so a better comparison could be made.

McHatton said, “I’m going to fight tooth and nail for every single business in this town.”

That stance was put to a live test later in the meeting, when it came time to act on buying a new police cruiser to replace the town’s worn-out 1996 Crown Victoria. Police Chief Kevin Schofield recommended that the bid go to Ripley & Fletcher, the low bidder at a price of $45,074 with trade-in of a 2004 Ford Tahoe with 90,000 miles. He said he chose a Ford model over a Chrysler or Dodge, which is faster, because the Ford performs better with acceleration and gets better gas mileage. Chevys are nice, but they’re $3,000-$4,000 more expensive, he said.

“They’re very easy to work with, and very good at servicing” police cruisers, Schofield said of Ripley & Fletcher, a South Paris dealership. Berkowitz, mindful of the previous discussion, broke in, telling the police chief to “be careful” in stating his reasoning for not going with the lowest bidder.

McHatton favored Macdonald Motors of North Conway, N.H., who bid $2,300 more than Ripley & Fletcher. The New Hampshire dealership is owned by the Macdonald family that has a car dealership in Bridgton, as well.

On the opposite end, Taft favored Casco Bay Ford, technically the lowest bidder, but only by $16. Woodward favored Ripley & Fletcher, because they are “a known quantity and will take care of our service needs.” Both of the men’s motions, however, died for lack of a second — and then McHatton chimed in, arguing in favor of high bidder Macdonald Motors, at $47,367 with trade-in.

“You can’t win for losing at this point,” Berkowitz observed with a smile. The discussion only serves to underscore the point that it needs to be clearly understood “when questions come up of how far is too far to stray” in terms of dollars from the lowest bidder, the town manager said.

At that point, McHatton capitulated. “I said I’d fight tooth and nail, and I did. I move Ripley & Fletcher.”

The vote was 4-1 in favor, with Taft opposed.

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