Ashland Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg said there can be challenges in finding local businesses that can do the best work at the least cost.

The city of Ashland will try to tap local businesses more often when it needs materials and services — if those businesses are qualified and can offer competitive prices.

On May 18, the Ashland City Council unanimously approved a new ordinance with language that states the city will endeavor to use local suppliers of materials and services while seeking the lowest responsible bid. The ordinance takes effect on June 17.

In addition to buying materials, the city of Ashland uses services provided by architects, engineers, lawyers, auditors, parking enforcement workers and others.

"I think this ordinance gives the city the opportunity to ensure that the city contracts do go to local providers," said Matt Small, an architect with Kistler & Small & White Architects in Ashland.

The firm has handled a variety of residential, commercial and government projects, including the Ashland Public Library expansion and several buildings for Southern Oregon University.

In a May 13 letter to the City Council, Small said spending tax money to hire Rogue Valley businesses keeps the money circulating in the local economy.

"The same money sent out of the area is gone for good," he wrote.

Using a local business means the city is not paying travel expenses for an out-of-town firm. Local people are available to meet in person with city staff before, during and after a project, and are familiar with the community, its standards and local codes, Small said in his letter.

Under public contracting laws — which are designed to provide a level playing field for businesses, reduce the opportunity for corruption and lower costs for governments and taxpayers — the city of Ashland cannot ban companies that are out of the area from submitting bids.

The city must consider cost, but can also weigh the quality of work that a business would do.

Ashland Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg said there can be challenges in finding local businesses that can do the best work at the least cost.

The city uses a Tigard-based auditing firm, which consistently has provided the best services for the lowest price. The last time the city advertised for an auditor, that firm was the only one that applied, Tuneberg said.

Seattle-based Diamond Parking, which has a local office in Ashland, was the only bidder for the city's parking enforcement contract, he said.

In addition to worrying about the city's use of distant businesses, some residents and City Councilors have said that the city spends too much money on consultants, especially ones from outside the Rogue Valley.

"We get lots of feedback: 'Why do you spend so much money on outside consultants?'" City Administrator Martha Bennett said.

Several City Councilors said they would like city staff to prepare regular reports on the number of consultants the city uses, and the total amount spent.

City staff members need to learn more about what consultants are causing concern among councilors before they can compile such information, Tuneberg said.

He said city staff members would have to look through all the contracts the city has with businesses and try to identify what would be classified by City Council members as "consulting."

Many of the contracts are not for consulting — and save the city money, Tuneberg said.

For example, Ashland, along with surrounding communities, has a contract for a centralized dispatch service for Ashland Fire & Rescue and the Ashland Police Department. Using the dispatch service saves the city money, Tuneberg said.

Contracting with Diamond Parking means the city doesn't have to pay public employee wages and benefits, he said.

Amounts spend for contracted services varies greatly.

For the coming fiscal year that starts July 1, the city had budgeted about $10,000 for architects, $15,000 for engineers and $11,000 for legal help, Tuneberg said.

Some of the biggest ticket items are three master plans covering transportation, water and sewage systems.

The transportation system master plan — which will guide infrastructure planning for vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians — alone costs $416,740.

The city will pay $241,740 of that, while state grants will cover $175,000, according to city documents.

Portland-based Kittelson & Associates, Inc. beat out 10 other consultants to win the contract for the work.

City Attorney Richard Appicello, who reviews the planned use of consultants, said usually city staff have the expertise to handle work, but they don't have time to take it on.

Tuneberg said a professional consultant who works on an infrastructure master plan knows about current methods and technologies for systems, and is familiar with the latest state and federal regulations.

"When you hire someone who does this on a regular basis, you're looking for an expert to bring current what you're doing, and to use what they've seen work elsewhere," Tuneberg said.

The city doesn't compile information about how many contracts are won by local firms and how many go to businesses outside the Rogue Valley.

However, in a recent review of 14 current contracts for the Ashland Public Works Department, city staff found that half went to local firms and half went to outside firms, Public Works Director Mike Faught said.

Of the half that went to outsiders, three of those were for the transportation, water and sewage master plans. No local firms submitted bids to create those plans, Faught said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.