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Business owner: Lee school district should buy locally; Vendors for furniture in Gainesville, out of state

By Staff | Oct 21, 2008

A Fort Myers-based furniture company expressed its frustration in September with how the Lee County School District purchases from only two vendors who are not located in Southwest Florida.

Joseph Gammons, president of Office Furniture and Design Concepts, contacted Board Chairman Jeanne Dozier last month explaining that the company had attempted to do business with the school district for the last three years, but had been repeatedly turned down.

The district primarily deals with two companies for its furniture needs, Virco and Contrax, and employs the “turnkey approach” which places the responsibility of product building and delivering to the vendor and not the school district.

“I can no longer remain silent due to the current economic climate here in Southwest Florida,” said Gammons. “Over the past three years, the school district has spent approximately $10 million on school furnishings with vendors who are located in Gainesville and California.”

The unemployment rate in Lee County is now over 9 percent, and Gammons asked for the district to consider entering into local contracts that would benefit the Southwest Florida economy.

“Because of this economic forecast I believe it is imperative that the school district purchase locally for any service they require that is able to be provided by a local vendor,” said Gammons.

Superintendent James Browder agreed that the district uses the “turnkey approach,” which is considered risky because mistakes in product development are typically found later down the line and can be expensive to correct.

In his response, Browder said “we believe that this approach still provides the best means of coordinating and managing furniture purchases,” but also said he would hold a new solicitation for services by late November.

“We agree that given the current economic state it is in the best interest of the district to issue a new solicitation for these services,” said Browder.

This is not the first time the district has been criticized for not using local sources. In the spring, it was discovered that six information technology professionals were outsourced from India to assist with the district’s approximate $30 million computer overhaul.

Also, out-of-state products were recently procured from part of a $250,000 food bid.

On the other hand, the district does purchase much of its produce locally in Fort Myers from FreshPoint and its fuel from Evans Oil Company in Naples.

Gammons said the district avoids doing business with local companies.

“As a business owner in Lee County and a person who employs people from all over Southwest Florida, it is discouraging that the school district has chosen to buy products from out of town because they believe the local businesses cannot handle the task,” said Gammons.

Another issue, according to Gammons, is that the district is purchasing products from an agreement called U.S. Communities, instead of the Florida State Contract. He states that this is taking money from the taxpayers because the district is not receiving the best price on products.