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Community College Construction: Simple Bills, Big Consequences

David Iverson, January 14, 2023

Many of the bills in our legislature are pretty innocuous.  Should we pay for lights at the prison or should we fund the prison at all?  Is it a good idea to pay for snow plows to clean the highways?  For many of us, these would all be no-brainers.  There are other bills, however, that appear pretty routine but in reality, have significant consequences.  One such bill is HB0028 - Community College Capital Construction.  It passed second reading in the Wyoming House on Friday January 13.    

The bill is fairly straightforward.  It increases the threshold that community colleges can spend without gaining prior authorization to $250,000.00.  Currently, that spending level is $100,000.00.  Both of those dollar amounts are huge sums to most of us.  The only difference is one of them is a lot bigger.  Proponents of the bill and those representatives that voted for it claim that facility managers should have the authority to maintain college resources and 250 grand is a relatively small amount.  They also point to a reduction in bureaucratic hoops for maintenance requests that will eventually be approved anyway.    

Representative Chip Neiman, Majority Floor Leader in the Wyoming House of Representatives, voted for the bill.  He had this to say: “There was a move to move it [the spending threshold] to a half a million dollars and I couldn’t support that.  I didn’t believe a 500% increase from where we were previously was a wise idea.  And, even based on inflation, a 500% increase wouldn’t necessarily be the best move.  I just like to have more eyes on purchasing and I think keeping that threshold as low as possible while recognizing that things are getting more expensive—all of us are dealing with that on what it costs to do business and we don’t want to tie the hands of our people who are in construction.”    

Representative Ken Pendergraft, who also voted for the bill, pointed out that facilities managers often deal with budgets that far exceed the $250,000 spending threshold—sometimes by millions of dollars.  He also noted that the expenditures of community colleges are routinely reviewed and that sometimes administrative costs can be exacerbated by bid processes for routine purchases.    

There is another side, however.  Spending tax dollars without prior oversight is a problematic for many reasons.  Public officials from the janitorial staff to upper-level managers are charged with being careful stewards of public funds.  To trust that this will happen all on its own is an absurd leap of faith.  Countless stories have been written chronicling the exploits of irresponsible and spendthrift public employees.  Each and every state has a statute mandating that public funds be carefully managed.  We do this through oversight and procedure.        

Spending without oversight would also mean that those entrusted with discretion may choose with which company goods are procured or services are rendered–without a bid process.  Most communities have a threshold under which goods can be purchased without a bid.  Normally, these limits are kept relatively low.  For example, in some Wyoming communities, there may only be one office supply store.  It wouldn’t make much sense to subject every purchase to solicitation.  On the other hand, most towns–even in Wyoming–have more than one print and embroidery vendor.  These small businesses almost always benefit from government contracts; and most of the time, clothing and uniform purchases typically fall far below the spending limit.  That’s not to say that facilities managers will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on t-shirts; rather, it's an example of how seemingly innocent purchases disenfranchise smaller businesses.    

On a larger scale, take for example, concrete companies.  Most Wyoming communities have a least a couple of firms that specialize in pouring large scale concrete projects for foundations which would easily fit below the $250,000 spending limit.  Without a ‘before expenditure process,’ a facility manager could easily award a contract to a friend or family member in the concrete business.      

Obviously, there are two sides to HB0028.  Both have valid points.  If we are going to trust a project manager with a $5 million budget, we ought to be able to trust him or her with a $250,000 budget.  While sometimes cumbersome, spending procedures for government as well as private business are in place to prevent favoritism, graft and irresponsibility.  While we would like to claim that none of this happens, there is a long history in the construction industry proving that this is not the case.  The Wyoming legislature would do well to remember this when passing legislation.