It’s the paperwork. It isn’t that people don’t know about the idea of doing business with a governmental body, it’s the joining of two words that reek of bureaucracy: government and contracts.
“It think it scares people,” says Marcella Covello, Mercer County’s chief purchasing agent. “Paperwork is the most daunting part of the process for them.”
Covello will lead a free workshop titled “Doing Business with Mercer County: Products and Services” on Thursday, August 9, at 6 p.m. at the Hickory Corner Branch library in East Windsor.
The event is one of several incarnations of the workshop that the county and the New Jersey Small Business Development Center of the College of New Jersey host every year. It will cover current bidding opportunities, how to prepare a bid, what to expect during the bid process, what is required, once you have won the award, and how to get paid. Call 609-771-2947 or visit www.sbdcnj.com.
Certainly the paperwork can be intimidating. Even simple applications, Covello says, can be 50 pages. And the language and terms found peppered across these 50 pages can be bad enough — words like “procurement” don’t do much to cozy things up.
The good news, Covello says, is that once you do the paperwork once, much of the information you enter can be transferred to other applications and proposals. Moreover, Covello stresses the best way to get over the paperwork bugaboo — call her.
“The way we look at it is that the businesses pay taxes, and because of that they are entitled to be part of the process,” she says. So Covello and others in her office make themselves as available as they can to walk business owners through the paperwork, the language, and the steps it takes to submit a proposal to do business with Mercer County.
Covello has been in the county purchasing department since 2000 and manages the procurement process for county contracts. Prior to that she was a junior financial analyst at Church & Dwight. She holds an associate’s degree in accounting from Mercer County Community College and is certified in construction project management.
Who can do business with the county? Any registered business in New Jersey can get in the running to submit a proposal for a county contract. Many of the county’s projects center on construction, but many also require goods or services.
The county looks for services and products of all kinds, it’s just a matter of finding one that fits your business. An important step to doing business with Mercer County, however, is to be on its vendor list. This will ensure that you are notified 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.
Common RFPs. Requests for proposals, or RFPs are always in the offing, but Mercer County does have a few types of projects that usually seem to be in need. “There are always requests for equipment,” Covello says. “We annually bid for chemicals for our golf course, for example.”
Title and insurance services are also generally in need; and, of course, there are often construction project offerings for county site improvements, roadway projects, or bridge upgrades.
Some projects won’t come around frequently, but do highlight the idea that the county is also on the lookout for unusual services. Not long ago the county asked for bid to install an EMAS (engineered materials arresting system) at Trenton-Mercer Airport. An EMAS is installed at the end of a runway to keep planes from overrunning the tarmac. It uses concrete obstructions to break the speed of the plane without damaging it.
And in 2009 the county switched from its long-serving Centrex telephone system to a VOIP system. Such a project is rare, Covello, admits, but one-time or infrequently needed projects come along regularly, so it pays to be in the county loop.
Time and money. From the time the county calls for bids to the time it is ready to select its contractor for a products-or-services project is usually about three weeks, Covello says. For construction projects it is usually four weeks.
For projects worth $36,000 and more the county is required by state law to advertise for bids. From $5,400 to $35,999.99, the county asks for quotes and must receive at least two before a contract can be awarded, Covello says.
The difference between a bid and a quote is that a bid is a formal process that is open to the public and must go to the lowest qualified bidder (one who has insurances, subcontractors, and other factors ready to go). A quote is more informal way to get prices for projects.
Once the contract is awarded. Applying for and landing a contract is only the beginning. Once a bid winner is selected, the department in need of the product or services (the requesting agency) reviews the bid for technical compliance — insurances, affirmative action statements, bonding requirements, etc. — and then calls the bidder to discuss the details of the project.
Once that passes muster, a “transmittal packet” is sent to the county CFO and risk management offices. From there it is reviewed by the county council and administrators before going up for vote and adoption. Then the contract is sent to the winner. The state requires that contracts be awarded within 60 days.
Getting Paid. Before any contract is awarded, the funds are set aside for the project, Covello says. The vendor signs a purchase order and delivers the goods or services, and the full sum is paid after delivery, though construction contractors may ask for progress payments as the project goes on in order to make payroll and other expenses.
Although Covello can’t speak for other counties, she encourages interested businesses to check out the sea of contracting opportunities available throughout the state. “There are 21 counties and 566 municipalities in New Jersey,” she says. “Most have websites, and that’s the best way to look for procurement opportunities.”