T.J. Ray: Some days government just not any fun

Published 12:00 pm Friday, August 12, 2016

Folks, there are days I just don’t like government.  Any government.  Seeing the things they do in the name of us taxpayers gets downright irksome.  Of course, I know that they don’t know what they’re doing.  Things would be better if I were in charge — or at least consulted on big projects.

My bet is that some (many?) of you agree with those words.  And though there are some days when they rattle around in my head, I’ve become convinced that all elected and appointed officials are not brainless zombies. Let me share a single episode with you, easily significant to make me rein in my protestations of things I’m wholly ignorant of.

Consider that a government group, say the county, announces that it wants a road built. The number of hours that went into that first decision must be tremendous. Why do we need it?  Where is it going? Where is the money coming from?  Do we do it with county labor or contract it out?  (Note that I am not referring to a road project such as the one that may connect West Oxford Loop with FNC park. That decision was reached by folks who got high chewing peppermint toothpaste.)

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The time consumed in making the decision to build a road is miniscule compared to the hours needed to do the surveying and calculating for the road. In the end a set of construction details fill the book that goes to prospective builders, including all the required legal documents that must be signed.  And, not insignificantly, a completion date is announced. In other words a contractor does not bid on the opportunity to build a new road from Point A to Point B anyway he chooses. He tries to show how he can accomplish the job specified in the bid package prepared by the county at a price he hopes will be the lowest in the pile at the end. He also indicates a completion date for the project, some firms giving a number of working days, some giving calendar days, and some specifying a completion date. In that detail goes all the planning and crystal ball gazing about possible conflicts such as bad weather. And that date looms always in his mind because after that date he is liable to penalties.

Decision made. Some technical people translate the desire into details to advertise. That advertisement goes to the proper outlets. And copies of a book of specifications is prepared and sent to all companies wishing to bid on the project. Each company that bids must submit an intricate set of designs along with a certified bond by a set day.  That bond will protect the county if a company did not follow the agreed upon conditions of the job. Think about how many hours go into the preparation of those documents, both by county engineers and construction company engineers!

On a specified day interested parties meet at a session of the county supervisors. The county engineer opens each sealed bid packet. He presents the copy of the bond to the county attorney, who indicates that it is or is not valid. If, as is normally the case, the bond is acceptable, the county engineer looks through the packet and reads out the company name and the amount of the bid. He then leaves the room with other qualified people to examine the particulars of each bid.

Contrary to my ignorant assumption, the contract does not automatically go to the lowest bidder. When I complain that this or that bridge was thrown together by the lowest bid, I’m wrong.  Though most of the time bids are granted to the lowest bidders, state law allows for a higher bid to be accepted if the details of the lowest bid are not suitable to the project.

The engineer returns to the meeting and tells the supervisors which bid meets all conditions at the best price to the county. Remember that specification book that went to the companies? If that book does not come back in the bid packet, the bid may be thrown out. While there is widespread set of bids, one gets the recommendation of the engineer. The Board considers that choice and casts a vote.

In a sense, all those hours of calculation that led to a particular bid are down the drain. It may be that a company not passionately interested in a project may deliberately bid too high just to stay active in the process. Their plate may at the time be loaded with other jobs, but their bid serves notice that they’re still around and viable. The unsuccessful bidders wait for the next announcement of a project, and the bidding wheel turns again.

In the meantime be careful if you’re coming into Oxford on Highway 30.  The folks responsible for (guilty of?) the new intersection of the new road from Oxford Commons were clearly snorting peppermint toothpaste powder and chasing it with ginger ale.

TJ Ray, a retired professor of English at Ole Miss, can be reached at tjmaryjo@bellsouth.net.