Think Amazon? St. Louis County is on the verge of telling its employees: Think again.
In an effort to both curb online spending within county departments and reinforce a buy-local message, the County Board moved closer to strengthening its purchasing language on Tuesday.
The board debated — and will vote on a resolution next week — calling on purchasers within county government “to make every effort” to buy local. The resolution is expected to contain language which would also call for greater outreach, in the form of asking local brick-and-mortar stores to stock certain products the county plans to purchase with regularity.
“The fact of the matter is that it isn’t always happening,” Commissioner Keith Nelson said during Tuesday’s committee-of-the-whole meeting, in which the board considers matters before sending them to the board agenda for approval. “The battle all businesses and all of us are facing is with the internet.”
Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross praised the commissioners for considering the initiative.
“The Chamber appreciates what you’re doing and we hope other organizations and large employers will do the same,” Ross said in County Board chambers in Duluth.
The county spent $147,000 on Amazon purchases in 2018. The figure is at the core of the current debate. After learning the figure earlier this summer, Nelson sent an irate, self-censored email in June to all county employees, condemning Amazon purchasing. The email read: “My question is simple why in the **** are we using Amazon. If people are having difficulty finding things locally, please contact my office. I would be happy to get our area chambers involved, they pay taxes here. Commissioner Nelson.”
Nelson’s email earned a rebuke in board chambers from Commissioner Beth Olson, who called the tone of Nelson’s email “disrespectful.”
But in the weeks since, the lingering topic hasn’t been Nelson’s email, but the purchasing matter itself.
Countywide Amazon spending in 2018 was negligible compared to the whole-of-county spending — amounting to 0.05 percent of the county’s $271 million in operating expenses. But that wasn’t the point, Nelson said.
“It wasn’t the amount we were buying currently, but what it would swell to if we as a board did not say we want to make every effort we can to buy from our local businesses,” Nelson said.
Nelson authored the resolution, saying small businesses account for $34 million in county property taxes. No commissioners objected to the buy-local ethic, but Olson wondered why a resolution was necessary when purchasing rules were already in place.
“(We) have given this directive,” she said. “I’m not sure the purpose of giving it again.”
Nelson said a resolution would be an "emphatic" message and one that would “add teeth” to current purchasing rules which encourage departments to “attempt to partner with our local businesses whenever possible.”
Regarding outreach, Nelson gave a recent example of playpens and cribs, which the county supplies for out-of-home foster placements. The county had been buying playpens and cribs off Amazon. Nelson said he and a county worker reached out to two furniture stores which said they’d be happy to supply those items at competitive prices.
Commissioner Frank Jewell recalled his days as a city councilor in Duluth, where the arrival of Cub Foods hurt mom-and-pop grocers. During that debate, Jewell was hearing from grocers and others who objected, and union tradespeople who favored the project and wanted the work of constructing the Cub Foods on Central Entrance.
“I think it’s a more complicated problem,” Jewell said. “I don’t disagree with you. We need to support our local businesses. (Cub Foods) really had an impact on the Duluth market and places owned by local people.”
Nelson was not stingy in his definition of buy local, calling nearby counties and the city of Superior "friends." The crux of the matter was with purchases made using national online retailers.
The board will vote on the purchasing directive at its 9:30 a.m., Tuesday meeting in Duluth.