A pesky trend has emerged at some recent Harvey County Commission meetings regarding a fairly standard practice — accepting and approving bids on equipment/material requests for the various county departments.

Per policy, the commission is seeking out the "lowest responsible bid" for approval, though there are many factors to be considered when it comes to determining the most responsible bid. While cost is a consideration, so too are the quality/suitability of materials and the bidders ability to meet the specifications — a list of criteria lined out by department staff that must be met for the bid to be considered.

Considering a handful of recent bids, the ability to meet specifications has been brought into question, which both commissioners and staff can't understand given what they see as a cut and dry process.

"I think in this day and age of bidding out whatever we go after, whether it's vehicles or road construction supplies, it's a pretty easy checkoff list on a lot of stuff," said commissioner Chip Westfall. "You either check the mark yes or no, but we're finding people who can't even figure that out on some of the bids."

"You have to be as unbiased and as fair as you can in that process to make it a level playing field for everybody. That's where it pays off for us to have specifics, that checklist that they can go through and hopefully they're doing their due diligence to go through and say, 'yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,'" said assistant county administrator Dan Bronson. "When they don't, that's when it's left to us to use our staff time to look through it and say do we accept this or do we not accept this?"

Questions like that are ones the county commission and staff have had to consider on the last four bid openings, regarding vehicles for the sheriff's office, road and bridge, parks and solid waste departments.

Given how much the specifications play into the responsibility of the bid, there is a certain amount of weight to them that has to be taken into the equation. When the ability to meet specs is unclear, those questions have to be answered, and the recent issues have elongated what's meant to be a streamlined process.

"They're meant to be straightforward, easily understandable," County Administrator Anthony Swartzendruber said. "We want to be able to open the bid in the commission room and hopefully award the bid that day. What we've been doing recently is, there's been a lack of completeness of what's been turned into us, which then requires staff time to follow up on and then bring it back another week to have it approved by the commission. It's taking more staff time to review the proposals."

Earlier this week, the most recent issue popped up when opening bids for UTVs for the parks and solid waste departments. One of the bids was marked as not meeting specs, with Bronson recommending the commission move on from that bid immediately. Numerous other issues cropped up throughout the process, though, and so the bids were accepted and recommended for staff review — something Bronson was doing all day Tuesday — before a final decision is made.

Part of the reason clarity is so important, as Bronson noted, is that the county will routinely get KORA (Kansas Open Records Act) requests regarding information on what led to the final bid approval — a popular area of litigation in local government.

"We have to be as black and white as we can...because we'll lose that objective nature by (vendors) not filling out a bid form when that's introduced. It grays it. It takes that black and white process and grays it for us and makes it harder to be unbiased and open and as fair as possible," Bronson said. "Compromising that opens up the door for legal action."

Additionally, Swartzendruber noted the specifications are crucial because administration trusts department staff to know the requirements a piece of equipment must meet to do the job properly.

Swartzendruber pointed to another recent bid — for a dump truck for the road and bridge department — that illustrated how cost is not the lone consideration in the process. This bid also had some questions regarding specifications, namely relating to air compressor capability, and it was found the lowest bid received did not meet the necessary minimum criteria — so the commission approved a bid that cost slightly more, but met all the requirements lined out by the department.

"To our mechanic and to the people who have to pull a trailer who rely on that to run the brakes or run whatever piece of it, that's a huge thing," Swartzendruber said. "Even though we might have to spend a little more to get what we (specified), that's what we set the rules at. That's the line. If you have a vehicle that has more stuff than that, that's okay. If it has less than that, it has to be set aside."

"It could compromise operations and safety," Bronson said, "so we have to trust whatever they (staff) bring forth in their bids that that is what they need."

On average, Swartzendruber said the county commission will process 25 to 30 bid requests a year. Though there have been some spec issues on several bids over the past month, it is not a process Swartzendruber sees changing.

Westfall alluded to some of the challenges potentially coming from vendors with new personnel handling the bidding process, which he and staff said could be alleviated simply by asking questions (with contact information clearly listed on the bid sheets), something the commissioner said could "help simplify things in the long run."

To see more about the bidding process and regulations for Harvey County, visit www.harveycounty.com/business.html.