State government doesn’t ‘buy local’


Don Keelan

For a number of years we have been peppered with ads that encourage us to "buy local." The ads originate from local trade groups, farmers’ markets and chamber of commerce organizations. Even the state’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development directs us to shop local. By and large my family tries to adhere to the request.

Indeed, what puzzles me is why do agencies and departments of Vermont State Government find it so difficult to spend state tax dollars with local professional service firms and suppliers?

The recent revelations of poor performance by the Canadian health care tech firm, CGI, which is attempting to institute the mission of Vermont Health Connect ($85 million contract) prompts me to raise the issue -- why does state government have such a propensity to shop outside the state for services?

Was it not feasible to use the services of the UVM Medical Center or our other neighbor, the medical center at Dartmouth? Here in southwestern Vermont, there are wonderful opportunities for shopping at huge stores in Albany, Saratoga and in Lanesboro, Mass. There are vast selections of merchandise available at bargain prices.

On the other hand, none of these mega-stores have the convenience and service that are so prevalent at the small shops located in Bennington, Arlington, Manchester and Dorset.

Someone would be hard-pressed to go to the JK Adams Kitchen Store in Dorset and not walk out with an armful of kitchen supplies. The same holds true with an excursion through the Northshire Bookstore, in Manchester.

But back to the state for a moment, and to add insult to injury, the state recently announced that it has awarded a multi-million dollar contract to another out-of-state health care consulting firm, Optum, a subsidiary of United Health Care, the giant health insurance firm. The purpose being to shore up CGI’s inability to respond to the 10,000 plus back log of requests for changes from folks who had gone onto the health care insurance exchange. A footnote to the CGI contract is that the state has a $5,000,000 fine assessed against the company.

Unfortunately, it is not only in the health care arena that is seeing large contracts awarded to out-of-state firms. Not too long ago a multi-million dollar marketing contract was awarded by Montpelier to a Denver, Colo. firm to do the state’s marketing. Among the 50 or so fairly large marketing firms located in Vermont are there none that can do the job of promoting our state’s attractions to tourists?

Surely, one can get a better bargain for a Stihl type chain saw or a hedge trimmer at Home Depot or at a Lowes. But what one will not get is the service over the life-time use of the equipment that comes by shopping at an R. K. Miles in Manchester or Chem-Clean in Arlington. The point being is that it should not always be about price.

Vermont has over 2,000 attorneys who practice law at large, medium and small size firms. They are quite capable and they are local. So why is it necessary for the state’s attorney general’s office to go to Washington to find legal counsel when it is within reach here in Vermont?

The recent highly publicized cases brought by Vermont’s AG’s office -- Vermont Yankee, Citizens United/VT Right to Life and now the GMO fight have had attorneys, acting on behalf of the state who are not located in Vermont -- and the legal fees expended were well into the millions of dollars.

The state’s attorney general’s office recently announced that it has signed a $1.5 million contract with the Washington, D.C. firm of Robbins, Russell, Englert , Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber to assist in the AG’s defense of the recently passed GMO legislation.

Space does not permit me to provide the countless other examples of state spending with out of state firms.

Is to "spend local" just for the citizens of the state to adhere to and does not apply to state contracting? I hope not but the evidence points out that the state is "exempt" from following the axiom, "buy local."

I am sure I will hear the argument that it comes down to competitive bidding as to why the state goes to out of state firms. I find this hard to believe. I hope it has nothing to do with politics and political donations -- or maybe I am too naive?

What is needed is a state legislature screening committee that would pass on all contracts to be awarded, over $100,000, to out of state firms and determine that due diligence was exercised to see why a Vermont based company/firm was not awarded the contract. Or is this too much to ask for?

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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