Tabs on taxpayers’ money, drop by drop


What’s in a bottle of water?

Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon sees more than water.

For him, the seven cases of bottled water, which is all part of a $4,000 bid to provide food for the Pilgrim Senior Center coffee shop, is an example why more diligence is needed on how the taxpayers’ dollars are being spent.

The $7.88 per 24 16.9oz bottle case jumped out because his wife had seen a similar case of water selling for about $5 at BJ’s. Why should the city pay $7.88 when it could get the water for less at BJ’s?

And it’s not just water. Solomon believes there are other instances where the city is paying more than it needs to.

“This is not an issue of a bottle of water,” he said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, “this is a $4,000 expenditure. If we keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to be deeper and deeper.”

Solomon said Meg Underwood, director of senior services, was being “nonchalant” about the added cost because the water, as well as the rest of the food and beverages included in the package, will be sold at the center coffee shop. Proceeds cover costs and yield a small profit that goes back into center programs. As it is, a bottle of water costing the city 33 cents sells for 51 cents at the coffee shop. Once sales tax is added in, the amount is 55 cents.

Underwood said she hasn’t heard any complaints about the cost of water, which, she added, sells for $1.25 a bottle at most retail outlets.

But could the city buy the water for less?

“I’m not saying it doesn’t matter,” Underwood told the council. She noted, however, if she or members of the center staff were to spend their time shopping for the best deal, the cost of gas and lost time would be significantly more than the two to three dollars saved on a case of water.

But the prospect of savings, and not just on bottled water, resonated.

“We need to be much more diligent in saving the taxpayers’ dollars,” said Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. A contractor, Ladouceur said he reviews all his invoices and is constantly checking prices. Without doing that, he said, he would be out of business.

“Send out a list to Sam’s Club and let’s see where the numbers come in,” he suggested.

Ward 1 Councilman Steven Colantuono thought that would be problematic because, he said, Sam’s Club won’t accept purchase orders.

It’s not that the city doesn’t shop.

The items, including the bottled water, were itemized in bid specifications that were advertised, as well as sent to possible vendors. In this case, the city received a single bid – that of Perkins Co. – and that being the only bid, it was recommended for award.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who chairs the finance committee, questioned what the council would have her do.

“At some point there is a cost to send these people to Job Lot and Sam’s. Are we here to micro manage purchases and at what level?” she said.

“To be nonchalant, that’s the wrong attitude, it’s not doing your job,” Solomon said slamming his desk.

“That’s not micro managing,” responded Ladouceur. “My job is the gatekeeper. This is a concept to save taxpayer dollars. That’s good business.”

Vella-Wilkinson said she understood, “It’s not a bottle of water. It’s a philosophy. Just tell me what you want to look for.”

“If you’re not a watchdog on a case of water, what else are you not looking at? You have to save where you can save,” retorted Solomon.

Ladouceur said the city needs to do a better job of soliciting bids. He said he finds it difficult to understand why the city only gets a single vendor responding to a bid so frequently.

The debate over but still without a directive about how future bids should be further scrutinized, the council voted unanimously to grant the $4,000 contract with Perkins.

The following morning, at the grand re-opening of Sam’s Club, the discussion resumed. Mayor Scott Avedisian saw problems with city employees shopping for the best retail deals, noting that they would need to be authorized to make tax-exempt purchases. The city does not pay sales tax.

“I feel it is the department heads’ responsibility to go over the bids,” Vella-Wilkinson said. She has reviewed purchasing with department directors and seen how they operate.

“I can say they spend the taxpayers’ money as they spend their own,” she said. “We’re not looking at a smoking gun for waste and abuse here.”

But, as she was at Sam’s Club, she also took the occasion to inquire whether the club would be interested in bidding on city purchases. Manager Gabriel Urueta said he would look into it.

Underwood said Friday that Perkins “has given [the center] great service.”

“Our intention is to have a nice coffee shop for seniors,” she said.

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