The Walla Walla City Council made the right call last week to reopen to the bidding process for a $1.5 million project to close a portion of the landfill. This move could save the taxpayers at least $80,000.
Earlier, we had urged the Council to accept the low bid despite a procedural problem with that bid. The glitch seemed to be so minor that it didn't give the low bidder an unfair advantage. We felt the potential savings of $87,000 - the difference between the top two bids - was worth the risk of a legal challenge.
However, lawsuits are expensive, time consuming and aggravating. Given that, the path of least resistance is to reopen the process. Yes, it's more work for city staff and the companies that want the job, but considering the legwork has been done it won't be overwhelming.
Originally, nine firms submitted bids to close a section of the landfill. The lowest bid was from Boss Construction Inc. for just over $1.5 million, which was about $112,000 less then the next bidder.
Boss failed to include a required $25,000 allowance fee for minor changes, which was apparently a paperwork oversight. If that fee were added to the Boss bid it would have still been almost $87,000 less than other bidders.
Representatives of the two lowest bidders argued their bids should be accepted and both said they have hired lawyers.
Starting from scratch was the prudent choice. The Council voted 6-1 to start over with Council member Jim Barrow dissenting.
"It is inherently unfair, it is not illegal, but I think it is unfair to the bidders to ask them to go back and rebid this after all of them have seen their bids," Barrow said. "It just seems as if the city is trying to get a lower bid."
Council members are definitely trying to get a lower bid - and we see absolutely nothing wrong with that. They have a responsibility to get the most for every tax dollar spent.
Frankly, Walla Walla and other local governments - as well as state government - should be working even harder to save taxpayer dollars. The downturn in the economy has made a lot of contractors and vendors more desperate for work and, as a result, they will take jobs for less than they would have a few years ago.
It's time to think beyond the sealed-bid process.
Some states, for example, are using eBay-like online bids for projects. Although, in this case it's a reverse auction. Bidders go lower and lower until someone gets the contract.
Pennsylvania became the first state to use this technology. It saved millions of dollars buying salt to spread on roads to melt ice and snow. Delaware and a few other state have followed.
This approach isn't necessarily a good fit for all government projects or purchases, but it could have merit in some cases. It's a concept worth exploring in Washington state. Lawmakers should look at the possibilities when they convene next year.
Meanwhile, the City Council is wisely doing what it can to save money for Walla Walla and its taxpayers.