Arkansas PoliticsEthics

How Government Should Do Stuff With Christmas Trees

Conway Xmas tree price tagYou may have heard that the Log Cabin Democrat (the local paper in Conway) subjected me to their journalistic fury not long ago for daring to question the city’s purchase of a $130,000 Christmas tree. I don’t wish to incur any more of their wrath, but after writing my stories and receiving feedback from folks from all over, I have learned a great deal about Christmas trees, Christmas decorations, and government operations in general. Here are a few things that stick out:

1. Cities waive competitive bidding way too often. Chances are, your city waives competitive bidding all the time. In fact, the city of Conway has waived bidding on 20 purchases this year — 8 in January alone. Some folks have argued that, due to the frequency with which Conway waives bidding, this makes the case of the Christmas tree a non-issue. However, in my view, it only serves to illuminate what I would call the routine or everyday quality of this scandal.

You also start to wonder why we even have competitive bidding requirements in Arkansas if they can be waived at will. I can think of some situations where waiving bidding might be reasonable. Say, for instance, the city’s main fire truck broke down. The city probably shouldn’t have a lengthy bidding process over this purchase because of legitimate public safety concerns (although they might already qualify for an exemption here under the “motor vehicles” section). However, suspending bidding on alarm systems, telephone systems, or tasers — all of which the city of Conway did in 2013 — is not good government practice.

Now, I want to be clear (I’ll type this extra slowly for those who are reading this article from the Log Cabin Democrat): the city is permitted under state law to waive bidding in “exceptional situations.” However, when a city is waiving bidding nearly twice a month, you start to wonder if all of these situations qualify as “exceptional.” Furthermore, as I’ve argued, waiving this process prevents transparency, opens the door for corruption, and costs taxpayers more dollars. On that note, the second thing I’ve learned is…

2. Conway taxpayers got ripped off. The city of Conway spent $130,000 for a Christmas tree and a service contract. Mayor Tab Townsell has argued that, since the tree has had extensive technical problems, the city was justified in spending this much money on the tree/service agreement. This strikes me as a highly unserious explanation — the kind you’d expect from someone who’s been spending other people’s money for way too long. (“Look what a terrible product this is: no wonder it cost so much!”) Nonetheless, that’s the mayor’s official position (until it changes). Interestingly, one Conway citizen did some research of his own into the cost of the tree: David Crow, a local government watchdog, actually called several companies that manufacture trees that are similar in size and features to the Conway tannenbaum. What Crow learned is that, had the city opened up the tree purchase for bidding, one manufacturer said they would’ve discounted the tree by as much as 40% back in August (when the original purchase was made). “He said his top of line tree is $150,000 and that was with everything possible on it. With a 40% discount, it would’ve been $90,000,” Crow said. Boy, didn’t we get a steal in Conway!

3. Conway taxpayers really got ripped off. You may know that the Secretary of State’s office decorates the state Capitol every year with lights, garlands, and yes, a big ol’ Christmas tree. But would you believe state taxpayers pay exactly $0 for the 25-foot cypress that’s on display in the rotunda? Granted that’s not nearly as cool as a half-lighted 54-foot Christmas tree, but hey, it’s free. According to Alex Reed, spokesperson for the Secretary of State, the tree — which is real, by the way — is donated by the Coles from Tom’s Christmas Tree Farm here in the state. To recap: that’s exactly $130,000 less than the city of Conway spent. And in fact, in decorating the entire state Capitol, the state has spent less than half what the city of Conway spent on one *@&$! Christmas tree.

(If I were a liberty-loving, smart-aleck blogger type — instead of being the soul of politeness that I am — I might point out here that the state of Arkansas taxpayers got a helluva lot better deal than city of Conway taxpayers and point out how this is a great example of how government spending is an awful substitute for private philanthropy and how government shouldn’t really be in the business of Christmas decorating, especially when it costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. Instead, however, I will just invite you to look up the word “apophasis” and leave it at that.)

Look: if the city of Conway wants to purchase a reasonably-priced Christmas tree to dress up the downtown area, I suppose it’s not the end of the world (although it really should be done by a private entity). If that’s the city government’s decision, there are proper (and improper) ways for the city to go about doing that sort of thing: being considerate of taxpayers by allowing bidding and saving as many dollars as possible should be at the top of the city’s concerns. In this case (and apparently many others), best practices weren’t followed.

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9 thoughts on “How Government Should Do Stuff With Christmas Trees

  • christina tucker

    ok, so what is done is done, I am so sick of reading about it everytime I log into my facebook account. We all know what has been done, and the only thing we can do about it now is to change the people we have elected to be in control of the financial responsibilities of the town….next election, change the person in control, maybe then, we will get a fair deal….I did not vote for the officials in office right now, so I feel like I do not have the right to complain about the right or wrong decissions being made by our office officials, but, you can bet the next election, I will have my say-so. Thank you for reading my opinion.

    • I’m tired of reading about it too! I wish the city hadn’t created this mess so we didn’t have to talk about it.

  • Andrea Kelley

    I would like to know if we the tax payers had to pay an outside sourse to fix the lights.. I know get lit came out once since this “dunce hat” went up… Tab said he went with a in-state company so that they could fix any problems that might occur.. The tree only worked right one night, the night get lit came back. It was back to “some lit” the next day. Strangely enough the tree was working right again the night of the county tree lighting.. If the city worked 1/2 as hard as the county judge who got the court house and county tree lit FOR FREE they wouldn’t be getting all of this neg. publicity… JS

  • Cindy Goode Cavin

    Here is the beginning of a second email Tab wrote me. First know my second email addressed every issue he brought up yet he then arrogantly says “Cindy, read this again more slowly” So demeaning!!
    Next read the last line of the paragraph. He flat out states they will spend as they wish with NO regard for what the taxpayers or public wants!! …the email only gets uglier from here!
    Here is first paragraph copied and pasted:
    Read my previous email again more slowly. The ordinance waiving of bids allows the city to choose the vendor it wishes to do business with. The enacting of the emergency clause only allows us to do it quicker. We’d have to wait thirty days after the publication of the ordinance waiving bids otherwise. We could however waive bids without enacting an emergency clause.

  • J Howard Markley

    I suppose since Christmas comes but once each year, and the timing varies widely, the need for an annual Tree could present many logistical problems such as where to place it. The “emergency clause” seems fitting under such stressful circumstances.

  • Scott

    Allen Dodson is a great guy and doing well as Faulkner county judge. It’s a shame he’s not eligible to run for election to that office next go around.

  • Jessica Rutherford

    It’s nice to know that you all have “heard the same story.” It’s also a blessing that by understanding the facts over time, you have come to the conclusion to replace the ones in charge by someone who can do a better job. Think if you hadn’t heard stories like these, would you be making the same decision next voting season? Now allow those that have not heard the truth, the facts, the research to have their chance too! You act as if the person handing out the information is just here to annoy you. Are you all that vain? The writer is simply providing the information to everyone. We care about everyone, right?

  • dan cathey

    have a recall and on elect them

  • Timothy Simmons

    Sounds to like those that spend other peoples money may have that new disease called (Affluenza )


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