Now that the Medford City Council has decided to move ahead with a new police headquarters and three new fire stations, councilors should make sure local architects and contractors have a real shot at the work.
The city plans to finance the projects with $38 million in bonds that it will pay off by increasing fees added to residents' utility bills. That money can go a long way toward creating local jobs — if the work is contracted locally.
City Council members Thursday night instructed city staff to modify their approach to allow bidding the police project and the fire projects separately. Staff had recommended that the projects be combined and bid as one project.
Councilors said they were concerned that might cut local design firms out of the running because they tend to be smaller than larger firms based elsewhere. "We need to spread the wealth," Councilor Dick Gordon said, advocating for separating the projects.
Councilor Chris Corcoran, while saying he hoped local firms might work together to bid jointly on the projects, added the city needs to make sure taxpayers are getting the best possible deal.
The council is under fire from residents who are upset that they will not be asked to vote on the utility fee increase. It's understandable that council members want to complete projects as inexpensively as possible. But that's not the only consideration.
The council is well within its rights to increase fees without a public vote. A property tax levy requires voter approval, but a fee increase does not. And there are strong arguments in favor of not relying on the property tax, which falls more heavily on homeowners.
Regardless of the wisdom of increasing fees to construct new public safety buildings, the decision has been made. Now the council has the opportunity to use the projects to benefit the local economy as well as improve police and fire operations.
Structuring the bidding process to favor large, out-of-town firms may make the council appear more frugal with residents' money, but it misses the chance to create jobs here. If bang for the buck is such a concern, the city could scale back the projects a bit rather than looking for a low bid from an out-of-the-area company.
City Council members typically campaign for office talking about the need to create jobs. Now that they have a rare opportunity to do that directly, they should put the public's money where their mouths are.