If accurate knowledge about the matters you legislate upon were a work requirement for Bossier City Council members, not just two but three of its councilors would be out of a job.
This week at the Council’s meeting, under criticism particularly from the incoming Republican Mayor Tommy Chandler administration for continuing a no-bid contract for three years without a convenience termination option with Manchac Consulting to operate the city’s water and sewerage operations, three councilors spent nearly 20 minutes defending the decision. The Council passed the measure to a final reading with only no party Councilor Jeff Darby in opposition, who argued that contract renewal should be for just a year and that open bidding for the business should occur after that ended.
The gist of their remarks spanning some 20 minutes were that a no-bid deal was pretty standard, a bargain in this instance, and demonstrated a “unique” response. Outgoing GOP Councilor Tim Larkin announced his summary of some “thoroughly” done research. He claimed these kinds of arrangements, where government contracts out functions, worked best with continuity of provider without “capitalistic” competition. “It doesn’t work that way,” he alleged, referring to having multiple entities in consideration to fulfill a government’s desires through contracting.
Adding to other Larkin comments, outgoing Republican Councilor Scott Irwin and reelected GOP Councilor David Montgomery emphasized how “unique” it was that the city contracted out, without ceding ownership, those functions. In particular, Irwin said retaining ownership was distinctive, and Montgomery “challenged anyone” to point out where this approach was used in the state of Louisiana or even in the southern U.S.
Further, they argued part of what made this particular instance of contracting “unique” was the distress the city faced with its water and sewerage provision. That the city saved considerably with greater reliability in function performance compared to when it did those things itself, they asserted, meant there was no reason to have competition when the city already had it so good.
Note, of course, the logical fallacy here – that past satisfactory performance by Manchac necessarily means that no other provider could perform as well for $1.56 million a year. The creation of a false dichotomy ignores that hundreds of firms nationwide, some with dozens of clients, compete for this business so it seems unlikely that Manchac (which does a much smaller scale of business in this area) necessarily must provide the best value in the country. And the costs to put the work out for bid to determine this are minimal since, as the councilors pointed out, the city essentially has a turnkey operation. Thus, what would be the harm in trying to secure something better, if it exists?
Plus, these councilors seem to have forgotten a basic aspect to their job – they are the ones who have the power to use political judgment in decision-making. If a lower bid came in than Manchac’s, they don’t have to take it; they can take into consideration the specific experience Manchac has and a range of other non-pecuniary factors in deciding what makes for the best offer. Curiously, their rhetoric came across almost as if an open process would force them to dump Manchac,
But what really emphasized the parochialism in their lecturing is how completely uninformed it was. And it begins with the fact that not only is Bossier City’s using a private entity to operate a portion of its utility operations not at all “unique,” but also it’s not unique or even remarkable in Louisiana.
Central, a city of roughly 30,000 only a dozen miles from Manchac’s headquarters in Baton Rouge, for over a decade has had nearly every aspect of its operations run privately. Its full-time employees you can count on one hand – and two are elected officials. It depends on other local governments to provide fire and police protection (with some part-time assistance), and hires part-time legal help. Everything else it contracts, in the $4 million range annually for the next few years, from the nonprofit organization IBTS (which, by the way, has a Bossier City office).
IBTS has held the job for the past decade, through a series of 3 to 5-year contracts. But, guess what, the city routinely has an open bid process that attracts multiple offers from big names in the field. And it even switched vendors once, when IBTS took over.
More generally, competitive bidding is the norm, not the exception, in these matters. Hundreds of American governments a year conduct contested renewals for their privatized services in transportation, streets, water, sewerage, waste, and other areas, with 85 to 90 percent in the case of water retaining ownership. Most end up keeping the award with the current vendor. Many had initially undertaken such efforts because they faced mounting costs and/or declining service quality. Contracts tend in the 3 to 10 year range, although some go longer or shorter with facility ownership more likely with the longest, with many for operations/maintenance only.
And, the idea of contested contracting shouldn’t be news to Bossier City’s current elected officials. For decades the city contracted solid waste pickup to Shreveport, then switched to Republic Services, then in 2019 to current provider Live Oak Environmental – because the city got a better offer from that firm. If asking around is good enough for trash hauling, why isn’t it good enough for managing sewers and wastewater?
Clearly, Irwin, Larkin, and Montgomery have no idea of what they’re talking about even though they should know better given the city’s experience with solid waste. Understand that in this instance their dissembling represented an exercise in excuse-making to justify insider deal-making that may or may not end up wasting taxpayer dollars compared to what competitive bidding might have discovered.