`Many people think it is difficult to do business with Mercer County, but that’s just not so, the county wants to work with local businesses," says Marcella Longo, purchasing agent for the county. In fact, Longo’s office awarded approximately $20 million in contracts last year.
This figure does not include state contracts and open-ended contracts, says Longo. The county’s needs range from basic such as office supplies to more unusual items such as "feed items" for the Mercer County Wildlife Center, vending machine services, and umpire and referee services for softball and soccer leagues.
Longo’s office has teamed with the Small Business Development Center to offer a free workshop designed to help small business owners learn about the bidding process. It is one of a series of workshops the county sponsors on how to do business with Mercer County. "Mercer County: Contacts for Contracts" will be held Thursday, March 20, at 6 p.m. at the Washington Township Library. To register contact the SBDC at 609-771-2947.
Longo and Lorraine Allen, regional director for the SBDC, will explain the bid and contract processes for the county as well as the assistance that small business owners can receive from the SBDC. The program will include information on current bidding opportunities, an explanation of how to prepare a bid, what to expect during the bidding process, what is required once an award has been won, and how to get paid when the job is completed.
As purchasing agent for Mercer County since 2007, Longo’s job is to ensure that all procurement dollars spent by the county are handled in accordance with local and state public contract laws. That includes making sure that businesses with which the county contracts are properly registered and comply with all state laws, as well as getting the best price for the product or service. She received her degree from Mercer County Community College in 1996 and has attended Thomas Edison College. She worked as a junior analyst for Church and Dwight and for the Mercer County Improvement Association.
Longo says that if you want to do contract work with the county, these are the steps to help get you there:
Register your business. The first and most important step in doing business with the county, as well as the state and any municipality, is to properly register your business. If you are a sole proprietor you can find more information about how to register your business online at www.nj.gov/njbgs. If your company is incorporated you must also file a stockholder disclosure certification, listing all stockholders in your company.
Get on the vendor list. Registering as a business with the state is just the first step, however. You must also register with the county. This will ensure that you receive notification of all bids in your area of expertise. You can download the forms to register your business online at the county’s website, nj.gov/counties/mercer/business.
When completed, these forms should be faxed or mailed to Longo’s office in Trenton. Longo recommends that any business owner interested in working for the county visit the website and become familiar with all of the information on it.
Quotes vs. bids. County officials are required to receive quotes on any purchases of $2,625 or more, explains Longo, while bids must be made for purchases or contracts of over $17,500. In the quote process, the department must obtain quotes from at least two vendors and the county is required to accept "the lowest responsible price."
This means that the quote that is chosen must be for the exact product or service, as well as the exact quality that is needed. In other words, a low bid that substituted a lower quality or different item would not be accepted, she explains.
The bid process. To do business with the county it is vital to keep on top of the current bid list. Right now, 85 percent of all bids are posted online. Longo is also required to advertise all bids in the public notice section of the Trenton Times. If you are interested in a specific bid you can request complete information on it, which will be mailed or E-mailed to you.
"We give two and half to three weeks notice on bids before they are opened to give everyone enough time to properly respond," says Longo. All bids and proposals are opened publicly in the Mercer County McDade Administration Building, in Trenton. Bidders must attend when their bids is opened.
While most of the forms in the bid proposal are not complex, they can be intimidating, and even minor mistakes in filling out the forms can mean that a bid is not accepted. The SBDC will assist businesses in filling out the forms and putting a bid package together.
Winning the bid. The forms do not stop when the bid is won. Once you have the contract you must file an affirmative action statement. If your employees will have access to a county site you must also file a statement that you are in compliance with all immigration and naturalization laws and that background checks have been performed.
This isn’t necessary if you are a vendor who is only supplying products. Depending on the job or service, proper forms may also be required at various intervals throughout the life of the contract. If the forms are not filled out, the contractor will not be paid. Once again, business owners who are new to the process can seek help from the SBDC in filling out the forms and making sure that they comply with all of the job requirements.
"One of the priorities of the county administrator is that all businesses large and small have the same opportunities to do business with the county," says Longo. Working with the SBDC is one way in which smaller businesses can gain the knowledge and experience to do just that.