DID YOU KNOW?…Counties, Cities, and Competition

Written by Justin Niceswanger
CIRAS Government Contract Specialist

A few months ago, a contractor with a history of selling to the government shared with me an interaction they had with a county employee.  The conversation went something like this:

Contractor: “We’d like to have an opportunity to be considered for the next contract and be contacted the next time you go out for bids.”

County: “We’re not required to compete our orders, and we have a local provider we’re happy with.”

The response surprised the contractor.  When the contractor met with me later, they asked me: Aren’t counties required to compete their orders like they do at the state and federal levels?

After doing some research, the answer seems to be: It depends.

What does the Iowa Code say?  One of the only sections related to procurement competition which flows down to political subdivisions (counties, municipalities, etc.) can be found in Chapter 26.  This chapter covers procedures to be used in public construction procurement when they involve public improvements and exceed certain dollar thresholds.  So, if you are in the construction business, counties may have to use some competitive procedures for orders estimated to exceed $67,000.  For cities, the threshold is $36,000 (or $51,000 for cities with populations of 50,000 or more).

For most other types of government purchases, the Iowa Code doesn’t prescribe procurement procedures for political subdivisions to use.  Procedures at these levels of government can vary between agencies, and largely depend on what policies have been established.  Here are a couple examples I found online:

  • The City of Ottumwa’s Code of Ordinances contains sections dedicated to duties and procedures to be used by a Purchasing Agent and others involved in the purchasing process (see Sec. 2-231 through 2-237). Competition requirements for the City are in effect starting with orders exceeding $5,000.
  • Polk County has nine pages in their Internal Policies Manual defining their Procurement and Purchasing Policies (see pp. 109-117). The policy mentions how “Competitive Sealed Bidding is the preferred method for acquiring equipment, supplies, services and construction for public use.”

Many cities and counties don’t have their policies available online for viewing, and many likewise don’t have codes and ordinances containing language about purchasing.  Even so, that doesn’t necessarily mean that these agencies are devoid of official policies or procedures. Try to find the people involved in the purchasing process and ask them what rules they follow.

The Institute for Public Procurement (NIGP), in a 2014 position paper titled Procurement Authority in Public Entities, encourages all public entities to formally delegate procurement authority within their agencies to “trained, public procurement professionals… (to help) ensure that public funds are awarded for best value in a manner that is transparent and impartial, maintains the integrity of professional values and practices, and complies with public policy and law.”  Additionally, the American Bar Association, in its Model Procurement Code created to assist states and political subdivisions with their procurement policies and procedures (which some have adopted either in full or in part), commented that “fair and open competition is a basic tenet of public procurement.  Such competition reduces the opportunity for favoritism and inspires public confidence that contracts are awarded equitably and economically.”

What if an agency you encounter doesn’t use fair and open competition?  What if the staff lacks access to public procurement training?  What if they’re not seeking “best value” for their contracts?  You may occasionally encounter these agencies, and this is when you may be more likely to hear things such as “We already have a provider” and “We don’t have to compete our orders.”

If you do run into these situations, I suggest that your next move should be to locate the potential end user or technical point of contact with the agency and see if they’re interested in what you provide.  Maybe you’ll discover they’re experiencing issues with their current provider, and they’re willing to consider another source for their supplies or services.  If the end user wants to work with you, they’ll likely make sure you’re at least in consideration for the next contract.

There’s no specific order in which you need to contact personnel within a certain agency.  So, if you happened to begin your communications with the end user, and they were quick to dismiss you for reasons similar to those described earlier, I would again recommend that you reach out to those involved in the purchasing process.  You may find out the end user was misinformed, and they do have certain competition requirements in place after all.

Are you interested in marketing your products and services to counties and cities?  It’s a good idea to talk with your CIRAS PTAC government contracting specialist: We can help you in identifying potential city and county buyers and end users, and developing a marketing plan.


For more information, contact Justin Niceswanger at jnice@iastate.edu or 515-509-9565.