Air conditioning is quite the heated issue in Benton this week.
In this week's paper, Rick Hayes details a controversy that erupted at Monday's meeting of the Benton City Council when Rocky Morris, speaking on behalf of a local watchdog group, confronted the council about the city's recent decision to hire a Carterville company to replace the air conditioning system at city hall.
"You just smacked local business people in the teeth," Morris told the council. "We had qualified people in this community to do that work, and you went to Carterville."
Much of the blame fell to Finance Commissioner Dennis Miller, who enlisted RSP Heating and Cooling and handed over just under $10,000 to get the city's HVAC system back in working order.
Miller deserves an ounce of credit for offering up some details of the purchase after the fact, and it arguably was an emergency purchase -- one that couldn't necessarily await for approval by the full city council. It's questionable, however, whether due consideration would have yielded a different result. More than anything, the issue points to tone-deafness at city hall.
"Buy Local" has become a token catchphrase, but to the folks scraping out a living in an economically depressed area, it's serious business. A simple Google search brings up a handful of heating and air-conditioning businesses in Benton alone; if one broadens the search to immediately neighboring communities such as West Frankfort, the list runs longer.
Surely "Buy Local" means these folks deserve a fair shake, and they have a great deal invested in this community. Perhaps city leaders forget that they levy sales tax against such businesses, or that even a city motor fuel tax can affect a business' bottom line. It's bewildering that leaders wouldn't try to support the local economy at every possible turn -- and, in exchange, collect the taxes for services rendered.
And while a formal bidding process may not have been required for this particular purchase, it may or may not have helped anyway. Following what Illinois law allows, Benton commissioners in 2010 passed an ordinance that allows the council to do away with competitive bidding on jobs of $20,000 or more if four out of five council members agree to waive it. Such a system, while ostensibly saving the city certain costs of administering the bidding process, can stunt competition. It's also a path cronyism. That's not in the public interest.
There's no evidence of intentional malfeasance in this recent controversy, but there doesn't need to be. Perception of a problem is a problem itself, and city leaders would be wise to remember that.
Most of all, if the council doesn't want this sort of heat, it can start by not freezing out its own businesses. In the end, they pay taxes, too. They deserve far more than a simple cold shoulder.