Jerry Rovner hefts a three-quarter-inch sheaf of papers and just shakes his head. To even be considered for bidding on the Mercer County job he hopes to land, he must fill out each box on each sheet with exacting detail and return in quintuplicate.
Four years ago Rovner founded Rapid Response Computer Services in Robbinsville (www.rapidresponsecs.com). The staff consists of himself, his partner, and a shared receptionist. He is confident that his firm could handle work for Mercer County, but he cannot even consider the two man-weeks it would take to fill out the forms. So the job will go to a large company, with clerks and lawyers aplenty to push the paper.
It is not just Rapid Response, nor is it just Mercer County. The paper proliferation has exploded into all commercial transactions, and nowhere more so than government. For this and other reasons, the small companies get squeezed out of government contracts. While all area townships report an enthusiastic willingness to employ small businesses, few had ready examples of small businesses that had won contracts with them.
This reporter conducted a survey of 20 Garden State businesses grossing under $1 million annually, and found only one that reported repeated bidding on municipal, county, or state projects. The remaining 19 found the process too daunting.
But Mercer County has joined Rovner in crying “enough!.” Brian Hughes, Mercer’s county executive and Charles Hill, director of Mercer’s Office of Economic Opportunity, have looked into the problems small businesses have in bidding for contracts, removed some of the bottlenecks, and set up programs to facilitate the smaller guy’s entryway into the bidding process.
Both Hill and Hughes have stated that by keeping small firms out of the bidding loop Mercer itself is the greatest loser. First, the county’s labor demographics mirror those of the state, in which over 80 percent of the workforce are employed in small companies. Second, small businesses are necessarily streamlined, and thus able to bid lower. A company that has the required army of clerks and legal talent on hand to fill out masses of paper quite naturally has an overhead that will be reflected in the bidding. Thus, by opting to go small, the county would boost employment and cut its own costs.
Office of Economic Opportunity director Hill came to the county to study and loved it too much to leave. A native of Chicago, Hill attended Howard University, graduating in l997 with a bachelor’s in economics. He then enrolled in Princeton University, earning a graduate degree in economics and public policy. He has headed the Office of Economic Opportunity for the past two years.
Did you see the contract proposal? To bid on a project, one has to know it exists, and too many governmental jobs remain unintentionally hidden. Here again, size matters. The company with staff enough to scour the trade papers and municipal websites, and visit municipal purchasers’ offices, is going to hear of more jobs — not to mention bidding shortcuts. The smaller firm lacks the manpower for such hunts. And even if it finds a suitable project, it seldom has the time to get up close and personal with the governmental purchaser to glean some valuable advice.
To broaden the competitive playing field, Hill has initiated a county campaign of public outreach. Mercer buys everything form janitorial services to paper clips by two methods: formal advertised bids or Request for Quotations. Currently formal bids are being advertised through more channels and can be obtained online at www.mercercounty.org/purchasing. To get the list and the details, visit the purchasing office at 640 South Broad Street in Trenton or call 609-989-6716.
Additionally, the county holds quarterly seminars on “How to do Business with Mercer County.” Businesses can also register services and products with the county purchaser, so when the need arises, the company will be called and sent a Request for Quotation.
Is there a path through the paperwork? As noted above, the amount of paperwork to bid on even a small governmental job seems to multiply annually. Hill is sympathetic, and adds wryly “don’t think it’s any fun for us on the county’s end either.” But he also says don’t look for it to diminish.
As a society we are obsessed with safety and security. We want more assurances of both in regard to everything from repairing the state’s capitol dome to installing new administrative software. In addition, we suffer not just from the fear of litigation, but also form the fear of the fear of litigation. So, add several more pages of detailed disclaimers per job. We have become a nation of revelers in worst case scenarios. Our governments have, quite naturally, responded by becoming control freaks, complete with land contracts and endless checklists. Thus the mounting fortresses of paper hem us on all sides.
So Hill and Hughes decided that if they can’t lower the mountain, at least they could make the path to the summit a little easier. Mercer County has established a consulting service to help businesses handle the bidding process. Mentors, such as Lorraine Allen, director of the Mercer/Middlesex Small Business Development Center, help business owners through the papers. In many cases the assigned mentor will even complete many of the forms for the bidding company. For further information, call 609-989-6555.
Is it possible to loosen the bonds? Many companies can easily supply a given governmental job, but the are unable to provide the required bonds and insurances. This bonding issue, Hill readily admits, is one of the most difficult problems. The government naturally needs a bond to insure a quality job. It needs protection against unfinished or shoddy work. But in past years such required insurances have become so costly that contractors have begun to view the punch list as a litigation item. Those who bid are those with the best lawyers on retainer or the greatest cash reserves — not those who can do it best for the least cost.
“This solution is a work in progress,” says Hill. “But the good news is that we are following the state’s lead on this. Soon we hope to have no bonding for non-construction related jobs. However, it will take more study.” Many municipalities, such as Plainsboro, under purchasing agent Fran Shames, have done away with bid bonds, thus lowering another barrier.
Can you understand me? Mercer, like many New Jersey counties, is home to a growing percentage of Latino businesses. To help these businesses, the Office of Economic Opportunity has founded the Latino Business Institute. “We have a number of successful bid applicants who just feel more comfortable working in the Latino culture and language,” says Hill. The Institute helps walk applicants through the business startup and bidding process. It also has undertaken the task of protecting such small firms from the army of predatory lenders eager to drain a company’s resources.
Governments need everything from couches to computer programs and like all of us, they want the best quality for the least price.
Until his recent retirement, when Mercer municipal schools needed painting, their boards frequently hired Lawrence Ransom, owner of Ransom Painting and Contracting in Trenton, a small business. Ransom was recently named entrepreneur of the year by the Metropolitan Trenton African American Chamber of Commerce.
Simply, he was low cost and very, very good at what he did. This is the level of quality that Mercer seeks. County Executive Hughes and Office of Economic Opportunity director Hill are opening the doors for this kind of bidder.