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Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008 08:37 pm

Local vs. lowest price

Out-of-town laundry contract sets off debate

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As the transfer of Illinois Department of Transportation positions from Springfield to Harrisburg hangs in the air, and after aldermen begrudgingly approved a contract for city laundering services with a company out of Bloomington, Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards wants to hear a citywide conversation about jobs.

"We should do everything in our community to make sure jobs are spent here, but we haven't had that discussion," Edwards says. "And the community needs to be involved. How important is it to them?"

Enough was enough for Edwards at the Aug. 19 City Council meeting. Springfield-based Aramark Uniform Services, which has washed the city's linens and uniforms for 50 years, lost its contract to Bloomington-based Unifirst Corp. The out-of-town company acquired the two-year contract for $211,324.50, nearly $24,000 lower than Aramark's asking price.

Aramark claimed it turned in different numbers than its competitor because it bid "unit cost per week," instead of "total inventory."

"We feel we have the lowest responsible bid," general manager Matt Warner told Mayor Tim Davlin and the aldermen.

Several aldermen including Edwards, Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen, and Ward 4 Ald. Frank Lesko wanted to explore the matter further, but Davlin argued that even though Aramark interpreted the bid sheet wrong, the process was closed.

"We are required by law to go with the lowest bidder," Davlin said. "Aramark was a great partner of ours and a huge employer in Springfield. But nothing changes the bid sheets."

Unifirst caught fire from Edwards after business representative Nick Schaefer informed the council that it launders in Melrose Park and ships its linens and uniforms in a semi-truck to its Bloomington office daily. The inventory is counted at that location before it is shipped to the customer. The company hopes to eventually establish a branch in Springfield, Schaefer said.

"Having services in Melrose Park — that's a real concern for the City Council," Edwards answered, before voting to approve the contract. The measure passed 9-0.

Davlin agreed at the meeting that a discussion of the city's bidding process was needed and suggested perhaps altering the local preference clause, which allows a local company to become the lowest bidder if its figures are within two percent of the actual lowest bid. This didn't apply in Aramark's case because the margin was higher than two percent.

"I think with the aldermen's suggestion, we can take a look at it at some point in time, whether its five percent or nine percent, whatever it is, so we keep jobs here," Davlin said.

Edwards wouldn't say if changing the local preference percentage was the solution, but contends that answers will crop up from a community conversation. Ernie Slottag, the city communications director, says the mayor agrees that there should be some local preference and is willing to listen.

Currently Unifirst is the only out-of-town company supplying city maintenance services. Allied Waste Service handles the waste disposal and recycling services; Lincoln Land FS supplies automotive fuels; Long Elevator Co. maintains the elevators at the Municipal Complex; Watts Copy System leases its copy machines; Midwest Office Supply provides office supplies; and Laser Innovations furnishes remanufactured printer cartridges.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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