Every few years the same topic surfaces for city council consideration and every time it does, there are imperfect solutions suggested which means the topic will continue to arise until a solid policy emerges.
We speak of course of our city council's desire to shop locally, so to speak, while at the same time ensuring local taxpayers that their money is being spent wisely.
A buy local policy for City purchases is to be admired and supported, but at what cost?
If a policy is crafted to provide local businesses with a slight advantage, is that a move that should be applauded or lamented? Locally-based businesses should already have a natural advantage. There should be no problem in matching or beating bids of competitors from distant lands such as Regina, Weyburn, Saskatoon or Winnipeg. But still, a small five or 10 per cent price differential on bids in favour of a local taxpaying business could be understood. After all, they have made a commitment to the community that others have not, so there could be a small and natural bias toward a local supplier.
But after that happens and the margin between a local supplier and an out-of-city competitor is still too wide in favour of the out-of-towner, our civic administrators and managers are faced with a dilemma.
They must provide value for money spent and if a local supplier or service provider can't do the job at a competitive rate, they have to be excluded. It could be plain and simple. But alas, it never is.
Quite often a call for bids results in a befuddling array of options and timelines from interested bidders that obfuscate the tender call.
Even the slightest advantage written into policy can raise howls of protest by serious bidders from afar, especially if the bid is for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why attempt to do business in Estevan if council is just going to fudge it up to favour the local guy?
What will also gnaw on the minds of councillors and department heads as they sift through various tendered documents will be the fact that local independent businesses are the backbone of the city.
They are the ones who always rise to the occasion to meet civic needs.
But then there are local businesses that are merely fronts for huge corporate entities that channel huge profits from Estevan to faraway places. How much of an advantage do we award them? Many of them have invested and donated tens of thousands of dollars for local projects with no expectation of any real return; while others ... not so much. So how do councillors and managers differentiate when the bids come in for a local job, materials or equipment supply?
These businesses, for the most part, employ local people and provide good wages, benefits and donations. But does council have to know how many millions of dollars these companies siphon out of the region to far away corporations and compare those numbers with the local retailer who keeps their profits at home? That's where the picture gets cloudy.
What constitutes a local business these days? Does a big box retailer with a local presence qualify as a local business if 90 per cent of the money it makes gets shipped elsewhere?
As we noted, the question is a bit easier when the comparison is restricted to local independent representation versus global franchises. But that's rarely the case these days. Usually it's a combination of global franchises with a local presence hiring local people but maybe management personnel hustled in on a regional basis ... people who are transferred out in a year or two for a repeat performance somewhere else. How local are they? What is their commitment to the community?
What obligation does the City have to them? After all, their headquarters is taking a portion of those profits to pay local taxes? That makes them a local business, doesn't it?
These concerns are good ones to have in a rapidly growing community. We don't see any major problems with a council providing a small margin of preference for a locally-based business. Our only concern is the definition of local ... and that's why we believe this question will continue to crop up from time to time at council tables for years to come.