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A cost-cutting County Commission? Contract vote suggests NOT

Cost containment is relative around the Clark County Government Center.

That’s the only conclusion I can reach after watching the County Commission narrowly vote Tuesday to approve a data transport circuit systems contract for Cox Business despite unabashed assurances from rival Embarq that its offer would save taxpayers at least $4.8 million.

Commission Chairman Rory Reid recently assured the press and Southern Nevada residents that the county was taking great care to preserve precious taxpayer dollars in hard times. County officials went to great lengths to meet with public employee union representatives. The message they sent was clear: With tax revenues flagging, we’re serious about watching our budget.

But not so serious, it appears, to at least delay a vote that promises to end up costing taxpayers millions more to fund the county’s telecommunications infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the county hospital, University Medical Center, is closing its oncology unit. County social services are bracing for a bruising 2009. But Cox gets the contract even after Embarq President of Business Markets Tom McEvoy essentially guaranteed his company’s offer would provide similar technology and support services while saving Southern Nevadans millions.

“The bottom line is that Embarq’s proposal delivers greater value to the taxpayers of Clark County because it’s far less costly than the (Cox) proposal in front of you,” McEvoy said. “In fact, it’s 64 percent less costly than the Cox proposal. Its equal-to-or-superior technology can assure the county it will have a seamless transition to the newest technology and services that the county wants.”

McEvoy implored the commission to delay the vote, promising to shave more than $4.8 million from a $7.51 million, 63-month contract.

“It would needlessly and unreasonably increase costs at a time of huge economic uncertainty and budget challenges,” he said. “During the negotiation period, Embarq presented an offer to the county staff that would provide savings and efficiencies. The price differences between the offers of Embarq and Cox are so substantial as to lead anyone to question how the Cox contract is in the best interest of Clark County and the taxpayers.”

Not that Cox’s proposal was bad. From all appearances, it wasn’t. In fact, Cox attorney John Moran Jr. and Vice President Steve Schorr noted the company offered a superior request for proposal back in 2006, about 30 months ago, and officials said its new contract will save the county 15 percent and $2 million a year overall.

That’s pretty good, but even county Chief Information Officer Laura Fucci eventually admitted Embarq offered a substantially bigger savings. She told the commission she believed the request-for-proposals committee’s recommendation of Cox was based on its superior original proposal and its credibility in the market, and several commissioners said they believed it was important to follow the committee’s recommendations to avoid potential legal entanglements.

In her recent commissioner briefing, Fucci outlined four options. In each of the three alternatives to approving the Cox contract, she noted the potential for cost savings. She did, however, note that there might be litigation potential if the commission rejected Cox. But even her option to approve Cox added the caveat that to do so, “does not allow county to leverage possible last-minute pricing offers from Embarq.”

Even the county’s legal counsel said Tuesday the commissioners were within their rights to reject the recommendation of staff and the request-for-proposals committee and go with the deal that promised to save substantially more money.

To put it bluntly, the commissioners swung and missed in their new role as coupon-clipping cost containers. Commissioners Tom Collins, Chris Giunchigliani and Susan Brager voted against the contract, which popped up on the purchasing and contracts portion of the agenda. During the meeting, commissioners wondered aloud how a contract with such a disparity in dollar amount could have been forwarded with so little background material.

Of the four votes to approve the contract, only Reid and Commissioner Lawrence Weekly will have to answer to voters and taxpayers. The other two votes came from exiting commission veterans Bruce Woodbury and Chip Maxfield.

It makes me wonder whether someone in authority at the county will eventually have some explaining to do. While Embarq’s final offer came late, on Nov. 21, at $2.68 million (compared with $7.51 million), it was a substantially better deal.

Knowing that, I’m guessing some taxpayers will hardly be able to contain themselves.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.

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