Getting bids in the public procurement process ensures that government obtains the best prices for goods and services - to the benefit of the taxpayers, who ultimately pay. Similarly, putting surplus public property out to bid ensures that the public gets the best price for that land.
Charleston County Council received a reminder to that effect last week from former Congressman Thomas F. Hartnett regarding the property on Courtenay Drive that council plans to sell to the Medical University of South Carolina for $17 million.
In a letter to council, Mr. Hartnett cited its responsibility to do better than "accept the first offer made to you." He said there is other interest in the property.
"A 'gentlemen's agreement' is no way to run county government and certainly no way to sell one of the taxpayer's most valuable assets. Consider the responsibility you have to the taxpayers," Mr. Hartnett wrote. Competitive bidding would help council get "the most money" for the property.
Mr. Hartnett has made a similar argument for seeking competitive bids for legal services to the Charleston County Aviation Authority, of which he is a board member.
Does Roper Hospital have a continuing interest in bidding for the county's Banov Health Department Building and the Charleston Center?
Matt Severance, CEO of Roper Hospital and senior vice president of operations at Roper St. Francis, said Monday that the hospital is not currently a candidate to bid, but added: "We would commend Charleston County if they took action and made this a fair and open process. We believe that opening up the bidding process would be the right thing to do."
County Council could still do the "right thing" by reconsidering its decision to sell the property absent competitive bidding.
Council gave initial approval to the sale last month, with only Councilman Joe Qualey voting in opposition.
Mr. Qualey said the county is passing up the opportunity to get the best price on the land, and possibly putting it on the tax rolls. Neither MUSC nor Roper, however, would pay taxes on the property. MUSC is state owned, and Roper is a non-profit.
There can be other considerations of public benefit in the sale of public property, though if two hospitals were bidding, it would be hard to make a distinction.
"It's a non-competitive bid, which was brought to us by the staff after a year's worth of negotiations," Mr. Qualey complained. "Nobody else knew about it."
But the sale is not a done deal.
Council still has time to change course when it meets today and follow the public bid route.
This is not the first time that council has been presented with a controversial staff-negotiated proposal for county property in recent months.
Clearly, it's time for council to review the county's policy regarding property transactions.