The purpose of competitive bidding for a municipality is to keep costs down.
It’s also a way to prevent favoritism or cronyism from creeping into city spending by allowing open bidding on a service from any number of qualified contractors who can get the job done.
So we were a bit surprised earlier this month when the Racine City Council bypassed competitive bidding and nearly unanimously awarded a $230,000 federally reimbursed FEMA contract to Kane Communications Group for an outreach campaign called Vaccinate Racine. The goal is to help the city reach its goal of having 75 percent of its residents vaccinated against COVID-19.
State data shows that currently the City of Racine vaccination rate stands at 39 percent for people who have had at least one shot, so that’s probably a laudable goal.
But the reasoning behind awarding the contract — and to a Milwaukee firm and not a Racine one — is sketchy at best. Shannon Powell, the city’s communication director, said the Vaccinate Racine campaign was “just an extension” of the Safe Racine campaign that Kane Communications created at the outset of the pandemic last May.
He said the staff from Kane knew how to use the city’s social media, they already knew the city staff who are working on the vaccine response and worked with the team doing the coronavirus website previously.
If familiarity with city staff and operations are the standard for granting a waiver, we might just as well do away with competitive bidding altogether. That standard would mean the only firms who would get city contracts would be the ones who have done work for the city in the past.
All other bidders need not apply. That would lead to only one thing — costs would go up and up and up.
Are we to believe that among the many communications firms in the city and the area that none would have the ability to quickly familiarize themselves with the city’s social media operations in short order? This is, after all, what they do for a livelihood — they run informational campaigns.
To our knowledge, the city’s social media operations do not require a working knowledge of Farsi or some other exotic requirement that only one firm could provide.
We’re bothered too that this isn’t the first time that Kane Communications and the city have skirted the competitive bidding process. According to Journal Times records, the city contracted with Kane Communications last year to spread awareness about COVID-19 with a contract for 133 hours of work at $150 an hour. That total — $19,950 — fit neatly under the city’s requirement for open bids on contracts of $20,000 or more.
Then, when FEMA money and state money became available, the City Council approved a change order for more work that bumped the contract up to $149,750. FEMA and the state covered 87 percent of those costs with the city paying $19,467.50 out of its contingency fund.
Mayor Cory Mason and city health officials at the time argued fast action was needed because the Health Department was flooded with phone calls and some of the communications work needed to be outsourced.
And last fall, Kane Communications also managed the city’s Get Out the Vote efforts. We don’t know if that required competitive bidding or what the cost was. We suspect the funding may have come from the controversial “Zuckerbucks” from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, that were awarded to cities — most of it in Wisconsin going to Democratic Party strongholds — in the state to promote safe voting during the pandemic.
All in all, this points to a very cozy relationship between Kane Communications and the City of Racine and that’s not something that will serve the city well in the long haul if it undermines fair and open bidding on contracts.
The City Council’s waiver of open bidding requirements is patently unfair to other city firms that may well have been interested in doing this work — and it should be revoked and reopened — and given to the lowest qualified bidder.