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Competing for Federal Contracts, Locals Don't Always Win

Local Matters


Published March 18, 2009 at 9:53 a.m.

The Chittenden County town of Richmond is localvore to the core. So it’s ironic that the firm rebuilding its broken bridge hails from Maine. Vermont businesses are learning the hard way that federal contracts — in this case, one financed by economic-stimulus money — aren’t awarded on the basis of geography.

As another example of how local firms can lose out in the federal procurement process, Chris Johnson assumed — wrongly, it turned out — that his Burlington staffing agency would land a contract with the Department of Homeland Security after the federal agency’s Williston office contacted him a couple of months ago. An official told him, Johnson relates, that the local DHS unit wanted to hire four temps through his company because it was a local firm pre-approved to do business with the feds.

Johnson recently learned that the contract had been awarded to a staffing agency based in San Diego.

“I was pretty upset,” Johnson says. “We had scads of local people ready to go.”

His 18-year-old firm, Technical Connection, has previously supplied workers to the Vermont branches of two other federal agencies: the Veterans Administration and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Under federal procurement rules, requests for quotes must be posted on e-Buy, a website operated since 2002 by the General Services Administration. Contracts are typically handed out to the lowest qualified bidder, regardless of locale.

But that system forces smaller local firms like his own to compete with large national contractors, Johnson says. And that in turn subverts the buy-local ethic that many politicians espouse.

An official at the Williston DHS office declined to comment on why the department reached out to Johnson in Burlington, only to award the contract to a California company. Acquisitions for DHS are handled by a section of the department based in Dallas, this official said, adding that DHS doesn’t talk publicly about this aspect of its operations.

Debby Munoz, head of the San Diego temp agency that won the Williston DHS contract, says she feels Johnson’s pain. “I too am up against everybody in the country,” Munoz notes. Her company, Good People, lost a contract last month with the nearby Camp Pendleton Marine base, Munoz recounts. Even though she’s done business with Camp Pendleton for 20 years, the staffing contract was awarded through e-Buy to a company in Pennsylvania.

The Internet allows her company to keep workers in Vermont and in many other states on its roster, Munoz notes. “There’s no more local,” she says. “There’s no more loyal.”