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Statehouse Beat: Inside the world of state contracts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- We've discussed, in this venue from time to time, the phenomenon of double-dipping by retired public officials. Now, here's a new one: Piggybacking.

In a little-known subsection of the 2006 law streamlining state Purchasing Division regulations (pushed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin and then-Administration Secretary Robert Ferguson), state agencies are allowed to buy goods and services without going through the bidding process by "piggybacking" on an existing state contract for that product.

I counted at least 115 state contracts that are subject to piggybacking -- in fact, Purchasing's website features a "Piggyback Contracts" page.

Piggybacking was brought to my attention after some advertising agencies, anticipating an upswing in public service ads in an election year, inquired about doing work for the attorney general's office. They were advised that the AG's office piggybacks its advertising off the Department of Health and Human Resources' ad contract, currently held by the Arnold Agency.

Indeed, a check of payment records in the auditor's office shows that of the $21.56 million the state has paid the Arnold Agency in the past half-dozen years, about $4.1 million of that business has been for agencies other than the DHHR.

That's topped by the Division of Motor Vehicles, at $1.78 million; the Division of Human Services, at $987,497, Justice and Community Services, $474,407; Department of Education, $189,139; Insurance Commission, $160,030; and attorney general, $115,294.

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The DHHR is re-bidding its advertising contract (with big guns Charles Ryan Associates, Fahlgren-Mortine, Manahan Group, and the Arnold Agency the remaining bidders) and the question of piggybacking came up in the pre-bid conference.

Bidders wanted an estimate of annual expenditures by DHHR under the contract  (Answer: About $3.7 million.), as well the extent other agencies piggyback on the contract.

The department's response: "DHHR does not track other agency use of this contract."

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Piggybacking is distinct from statewide contracts, which state agencies are required to use for purchases of commonly used goods and services, such as coaxial cable, modular furniture, light bulbs or paper products, to name a few.

There seems to be two issues with piggybacking: One, as with the attorney general's office advertising, piggybacking seems to preclude smaller businesses from being able to compete for what otherwise would be smaller contracts.

In fact, two of the Arnold Agency's most recent billings would have been manageable contracts for a small ad agency: $97,807 on May 22 for the attorney general's office, and $33,057 on March 6 for the DMV.

Two, there could be times when economies of scale work against the state, although agencies are supposed to show that piggybacking has cost savings over putting a new contract out to bid.

Case in point, the current piggyback for flat screen televisions is through three Division of Natural Resources contracts to install sets at three state parks.

Sodaro's got the contract to install 42-inch TVs at Blackwater Falls State Park at a unit price of $589, while Lee Hartman and Sons of Roanoke, Va., got the contract to install 37-inch sets at $623.50 each, and 55-inch sets at $1,547 each at Tygart Lake State Park.

Seems like an agency making a major purchase of flat screens would be better off bidding them out, rather than piggybacking at those rates.

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You can't make this stuff up: Among the 115 piggyback contracts is one through the state medical examiner's office for body bags. (The vendor is Medical Products Ltd. of Conyers, Ga.)

Like clothing, body bags come in different sizes for infants, children, as well as adult, adult large and adult extra large sizes (the latter being a whopping 100 inches long and 48 inches wide ... I think I had an apartment in Morgantown smaller than that).

In the state's request for bids, bidders were to provide a cost per bag, but when it came to adult sizes, the medical examiner's request was for large and extra-large body bags only.

A sad commentary, and perhaps, another nugget for Kate Long's "The Shape We're In" series.

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Finally, one for the "ironically" files: A YouTube video of an old Shelley Moore Capito campaign ad featuring her then-teenaged daughter, Shelley, is making the rounds. In the spot, the young Shelley says of her mom, "I think she works so hard because she wants my generation to stay in West Virginia, find good jobs, and raise our families here."

As it turned out, after graduating from Duke, young Shelley recently went to work for Tusk Strategies, a political and strategic consulting firm in New York City, after working on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's re-election campaign in 2009.

Yes, the same Michael Bloomberg who announced last year that his charitable foundation would contribute $50 million to the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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