When the Regional District of Central Kootenay declined the City of Nelson’s offer to share space in the city-owned White Building in January, there was hardly a murmur from the public.
But when the board opted a few months later to buy new office furniture from an out-of-town supplier rather than a local business whose bid was $20,000 lower, there was a huge outcry.
Nelson’s Cowan Office Supply owners Andy and Paul Cowan said they were “shocked, disappointed and confused” to discover that the board awarded its contract to Graphic Office Interiors Ltd. of Vancouver Island at a cost of $182,000. Cowan’s bid was $162,000, but it was given a slightly lower evaluation score when analyzed by regional district staff. Graphic was the same company that redesigned the office layout to improve its efficiency, which the Cowans said resulted in a competitive advantage.
“By writing the specifications for the project, Graphic could tailor all work to favor themselves, and in some cases lock out competitors from bidding,” they said.
While they acknowledged price wasn’t the only criteria, they said the ten-point difference in scoring was a “virtual tie … As taxpayer and business owners we have to [ask] how is this justified?”
They were further concerned other parts of the project — such as a new file storage system, reception area, and copy room — weren’t put to tender. Graphic Office received a $91,500 contract to provide those components, as a result of a corporate agreement with the province that pre-qualifies government suppliers. Initially the regional district was going to award the contracts entirely using that method, but on hearing there was local interest, they sent the furniture contract out for proposals.
Chief administrator Brian Carruthers said several factors convinced them to go with the higher bid, chiefly warranty and specifications. Cowan’s workstation dividing panels weren’t tall enough and Graphic Office offered a 12-year warranty, whereas Cowan’s offered five. The staff team that evaluated the products also claimed Graphic Office’s product was more user friendly than Cowan’s.
Carruthers also said by law they can’t give preferential treatment to local bidders without breaching an inter-provincial trade agreement.
“The review committee members indicated the product associated with Graphic Office and in particular the performance of the adjustable workstations was a significant factor in staff usability and the extra costs associated with the product is warranted,” they wrote.
While Cowan’s received top marks for its price, it lost points for specifications and performance.
Board chair John Kettle said he trusted the staff recommendation: “We rely on our them to make sure the process is clear, fair, and treats everybody the same way. I feel confident they independently reviewed it. If we’re guilty of anything, it’s of supporting our staff.”
Kettle said Nelson companies already receive a great deal of regional district business because the board office is here and any equity purchasing policy would have to put Castlegar, Creston, and other areas on the same footing.
Only Nelson mayor John Dooley voted against awarding the contract to Graphic Office.
As some residents accused the board of basing its decision on biased and inaccurate information, the regional district said it would appoint an independent adjudicator to review its decision and hold off on approving the contract. Nelson chartered accountant Am Naqvi volunteered to do the review for free, but his professional association advised him against it. The board did not seek a different adjudicator, and instead upheld its earlier decision.
Rural Castlegar director Gord Zaitsoff asked that the decision be revisited, but his motion was defeated. Ramona Faust asked that the refurnishing of the board room be sent out for bids, but only found support from fellow rural Nelson rep Ron Mickel.
The $36,000 cost of the new board table was criticized in particular, but the regional district said the large structure was designed so the room can be converted into an emergency operations centre.
The new furniture was part of an overall renovation to the regional district’s Nelson office. Dan Maglio Contracting of Nelson beat out three other bidders to handle the renovations and other aspects of the project with the low bid of $302,000.
The regional district also noted that in 2012, 41 per cent of its purchases over $25,000 went to businesses within the regional district, totaling $17.4 million, and 17 per cent to suppliers in the Nelson area, totaling $3 million. Most purchase under $25,000 are also made locally.
The furniture flap did not have much impact on the election: Zaitsoff was the only incumbent rural director defeated. Two others were re-elected and five were acclaimed.