Public purchasers are stepping up to the plate even as the federal government rolls out rules covering implementation of the stimulus legislation. Seeing the chance for her institution to obtain federal funds, Eileen Miller, purchasing management analyst at Salem, Ore.’s Chemeketa Community College, has been drafting reports for her college’s local contract review board.
The college has $16 million in shovel-ready projects that may qualify for stimulus funding, including a plan to upgrade primary electrical distribution to a secondary loop. Its 40-year-old conductors failed three times in the last year, and those outages occasionally forced administrators to close the campus. Another project calls for spending $1.4 million to create additional classrooms that could be used in an expanded wine and agricultural industries curriculum.

Now is the time to speak up
Public purchasers should make their views known if they are asked to serve on a stimulus funding project committee, says Stephen B. Gordon, director of procurement for Alexandria, Va. “Participate proactively in the planning, forming and administration of contracts that will be funded with stimulus funding. Think big, but pay close attention to the details. If there ever was a time for procurement and contracting officials to show that they are competent strategic players, this is it.”
Gordon sees public purchasers taking on several tasks as they help cities and counties allocate and spend stimulus funds. “The key roles include identifying, analyzing, and recommending purchases and contracts that could be funded with the money; understanding what the strings that come with the money will require us to do; and asking questions when we don't understand what we will be expected to do.” Public purchasers should involve grantor agency officials, other fiscal and administrative officers, and client department representatives when gathering information, Gordon says.

Falls Church, Va., procurement has been involved in stimulus funding planning from the beginning, says Cindy Mester, assistant city manager. The city’s procurement officer, Faye Smith, prepared key documents early in the process.
“Most of those stimulus grants are going to be filed online, so you have to be registered with Grants.gov, which is the federal connection piece,” Mester says. She says agencies have to have a Duns number, Central Contractor Registration and register an e-business primary contact. “My procurement officer took the lead to make sure we were all coordinated and ready to do that.”
Jay McCleary, deputy director of government services in Red Wing, Minn., public works department and Go Pro editorial advisor, says stimulus dollars might have limited effects on procurement. Most of the money will be used in construction projects, which generally are handled through the engineering departments and not through purchasing. “There will be some construction projects for buildings, and those may be handled through purchasing, but it is hard to say,” McCleary says.

Not much is certain
Kirk Buffington, director of purchasing for Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and president of the Herndon, Va.-based National Institute of Governmental Purchasing (NIGP), says most local officials still are trying to determine the role of public purchasers in receiving and managing federal stimulus funds. “The federal government still needs to compile rules as to how that bill language is supposed to be implemented.”
One area of uncertainty, Buffington says, covers use of Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) in federal stimulus programs. “We’re not sure if there’s an expectation that every dollar we spend from the stimulus package is supposed to follow the FAR, or follow what we may do locally.” He also admits that very few local administrators are experts on FAR.
The economic recovery pages on individual federal agency websites are some sources for help for purchasers in preparing for the Stimulus Package funds, says Carolyn Coleman, federal relations director at the Washington-based National League of Cities (NLC).“Every agency is issuing separate guidance for the different federal stimulus programs, so you need to go to the federal agency’s website. Some of them have released regulations, and others haven’t yet,” she says. “Think about what it is your jurisdiction is trying to do through the stimulus funding and the specific funding program, and then go to the federal agency of jurisdiction. [The individual federal agency] decides what’s an eligible project, what will get funded, what’s the process for accessing the funds, if it a competitive grant, or if it a formula grant.”
Some state government stimulus web pages also explain how their state is spending ARRA funds. For a complete list of all state recovery sites, visit www.recovery.gov.

Some projects must move quickly

In several instances, the ARRA legislation calls for projects to be started within 120 days of when the funds are allocated or obligated, depending on the program. NLC Executive Director Donald Borut is urging NLC members to “immediately streamline procurement processes, consistent with accountability requirements,” to ensure that cities get access to available stimulus funds.
“Timing is the most crucial part in meeting all of the requirements to spend stimulus money,” says Jill Klaskin-Press, assistant to the director in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., Department of Procurement Management. “Many entities are considering applying their emergency procurement policies to spending stimulus funds in order to ensure spending the money within the specified time frames,” she says.
Klaskin-Press has heard that federal administrators may open all GSA schedules to state and local government purchases that are made using stimulus fund dollars. “That would certainly reduce the amount of time to put contracts into place,” she says.
U.S. Communities, the Walnut Creek, Calif.-based government purchasing alliance, is taking steps to enable governments to use stimulus dollars quickly, says Steve Swendiman, managing director/CEO of the Washington-based National Association of Counties' Financial Services Center, and a co-general manager of U.S. Communities. “Many of the stimulus grants are time-limited, and all of the supply agreements in the U.S. Communities' stimulus plan have been publicly solicited nationwide for public agencies — so those agencies can ride those contracts without having to take the time to re-procure.”
Electronic tools available through the U.S. Communities’ website can help local governments keep tabs on stimulus dollars, Swendiman says. “A number of suppliers have what are called grant trackers, so if your agency is using federal funds, those tools will track the dollars through the process, so that if there is an audit two or three years down the road, everything’s retained in electronic format for the federal auditing agencies.”
“The pressure to cut corners and push the schedule will be even greater than usual,” Gordon says. ”Procurement officials must stay focused on doing our job correctly and completely; not just doing it quickly.” Gordon says public purchasers should “keep the focus on optimizing results, price and cost, while at the same time dealing with strings and red tape that we ordinarily may not have to deal with.”