Alert Georgia county avoids shortages due to COVID-19 pandemic
Executives in DeKalb County, Ga., saw the handwriting on the wall and acted quickly before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, says Michelle Butler, the county’s procurement manager. “Our county CEO had actually started stockpiling personal protective equipment (PPE) and our facilities managers had begun speaking with staffers to make sure we had adequate sanitizer, sanitizing stations and face masks.”
There was no scarcity of needed gear as the pandemic alarms sounded, Butler says. “We avoided a shortage situation. County management was definitely proactive in anticipating that we would need to distribute a lot of PPE to our staff as well as to citizens.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, Butler’s procurement team has played a key role. “In mid-March, our county leaders said we needed to start remote working for county staffers. Around that time another procurement manager and I started serving on a team with personnel from the county’s facilities management department,” Butler explains. The team worked to connect the county with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) programs in place. Earlier in March, Butler and the procurement department were part of the logistics process to ensure that the county would be prepared to handle distribution of PPE. The department worked to obtain assistance from state agencies and FEMA. The county has collaborated closely with agencies at all levels of government during the crisis, Butler adds.
Butler believes the pandemic has been a catalyst for change. “We are definitely doing more remote activities and work from home. That is true for all industries these days. And we are definitely thinking outside the box on how we plan and process projects, how we procure projects, how we move in the contract-signing phase and how we actually implement the project. And as far as meetings for the project–all of these activities are definitely shifting from what we thought the norm was.”
DeKalb County is using cooperative purchasing contracts to buy law enforcement gear, road salt, sewer line rehabilitation and other commodities and services. Butler believes cooperative purchasing deals can potentially save time for public procurement departments.
“We saw that before the pandemic. Here in Georgia, we don’t get a lot of snow or ice storms, but when we do, we tend to not have enough rock salt for roads. So for many entities, that can be a supply issue, because we don’t stockpile it because we generally don’t need much of it. So we discovered that cooperatively purchasing salt from other entities that already had salt under contract was helpful, because you would call a vendor and they would say, ‘Well, I don’t have a supply to ship to you,’ or they would raise the prices because you didn’t have a contract with them. So definitely for situations like what we are in right now, cooperative procurement contracts have been an asset.”
DeKalb County has relied on cooperative purchasing agreements to install cured-in-place pipe (CIPP), a trenchless rehabilitation method used to repair existing pipelines. The pipe repair is one of many water and sewer infrastructure procurements in the county under a $1.4 billion capital improvement plan and consent decree. “We’ve gotten a lot of work done quickly with a lot less procurement time having to be used because that type of contracting work has already been done by another entity, so we saved in human capital on the process and it’s time-efficient,” Butler says. She believes cooperative purchasing has yielded some substantial savings on the county’s water infrastructure projects.
Butler says her training and experience as an attorney have helped her think beyond the surface level. “As a lawyer, you look at the process with an analytical eye as well as a legal eye. You are thinking about what the end results could possibly be on both sides five or six steps ahead, sometimes 10 steps ahead. To some people, that could seem like you are digging into the weeds, but a lot of these things can become a big problem later on if you don’t think about them in the beginning or in the planning process.”
DeKalb’s procurement department staffing and budget levels have stayed about the same over the recent past, Butler says. “For most municipalities and counties around the U.S., you are doing a lot with little or less resources. So we are no different than any other local government on that front. We are just trying to make it work the best way we can.”
Michael Keating is senior editor for American City & County. Contact: [email protected]