The Amherst comptroller has refused to pay more than $200,000 in invoices for everything from car parts to cleaning supplies because of what she calls persistent townwide violations of the state’s bidding requirements.
Her refusal to pay, which has been backed by the town attorney, has left the town facing angry calls from vendors and has left the Town Board addressing potential threats on the town’s otherwise stellar credit rating.
Town Comptroller Darlene A. Carroll said she has spent a year trying to work with department heads to get them to curb purchasing abuses but finally got fed up.
“It got to a point where I kept seeing the same issue over and over,” she said.
The Town Board has grappled with the issue for months, but a plan put forth to correct the situation by Council Member Steven D. Sanders was shot down at last week’s meeting. Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said he’s putting another model into place that should address most issues by February.
In the meantime, the board ordered Carroll to pay more than 100 invoices totaling roughly $175,000 across six departments. The board also ordered Carroll to pay a $53,036 invoice for trees from Gleason’s Nursery earlier this month.
“Legally, we should never have voted for them, … but the reality is, we’re between a rock and a hard place,” said Sanders, an accountant who headed a committee to try and rectify the purchasing problems. “I have to believe these are honest mistakes.”
When questioned further, some town leaders say explanations given by department heads for not buying commodities off government contracts or through bidding are thin at best. Department heads, meanwhile, said the comptroller abruptly dropped the hammer on them without providing the resources they need to comply with the law.
“We’ve always done it that way,” said Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson. “Now, all of a sudden, she said, ‘Aha, I got you!’ This came out of midair.”
Most of the questionable invoices do not involve major purchases of single items, but rather a series of smaller purchases over a period of months that collectively raise a red flag.
Carroll and other officials chalk up the problem to the long-standing practice of decentralized purchasing, a lack of consolidated purchasing information townwide, and an unwillingness by departments to adopt more proper practices because it’s more cumbersome – and sometimes more expensive – than calling up local vendors and getting several quotes for immediate needs.
State law requires that if a municipality is purchasing more than $20,000 of a certain type of equipment or supplies, a formal bidding process must be followed unless the items are being purchased off a state, county or other acceptable bid list.
Some departments aren’t looking at these lists, even though it would make a lengthier town bidding process unnecessary, officials said. In other cases, poor communication and the lack of a central purchasing database has led departments to commit innocent purchasing errors. Finally, department heads have argued that certain types of parts and equipment are being inappropriately lumped together to exceed the $20,000 threshold.
Even when department purchasers say they’ve ordered equipment or supplies off of state or county contracts, Sanders and Carroll said, they haven’t been required to offer proof until they get spot-checked by the comptroller and often come up lacking.
“I shouldn’t have to be the purchasing police,” Carroll said.
The end result: inadequate justification for purchases, rejected invoices and angry suppliers. At least two auto parts suppliers informed the town that they will refuse any more purchase orders from Amherst starting next month if they don’t get paid for the thousands of dollars in unpaid purchases the town has already made.
Both the Highway and Engineering departments, which do the bulk of bigger-ticket equipment and parts purchasing in town, were listed on town spreadsheets as the most problematic purchasers, racking up about $90,000 or more in charges for which departments are offering little evidence beforehand or after the fact that purchases were made in strict accordance with the law.
Last week, Sanders proposed a six-part purchasing process in an attempt to resolve purchasing issues going forward. However, the board voted down that plan, 4-2, describing it as unwieldy and ineffective, especially since Anderson, the highway superintendent, has stated his refusal to fill out “ridiculous” pre-approval paperwork.
Town leaders said the town’s decentralized purchasing process has existed for years, though the town has intermittently had a purchasing director. The town’s last full-time purchasing director left in late 2010.
Since then, Weinstein has assumed the position of interim purchasing director at no additional salary. He said he has been trying to referee between department heads and was genuinely surprised last week to see the extent of unpaid bills.
“Barry’s taken a very passive approach to this,” Sanders responded.
Last week, both Weinstein and Carroll said that changes are under way to make it easier for department heads to access purchasing information and government bid lists on the town’s internal website. Catalog bids also are being solicited from the town’s most common vendors.
Finally, administrators will be required to obtain written pre-approval for purchases not bid out or made off of government bid lists. Weinstein said he will make the new process mandatory by Feb. 5.
“I’m going to give them almost two weeks to get up to speed on the system,” Weinstein said. “We’ll see how it goes.”