St. Louis County will be looking local first when purchasing supplies and equipment thanks to a resolution the County Board passed Tuesday, a few months after a commissioner sent a countywide e-mail criticizing the amount of county funds spent ordering products from Amazon.
The board voted unanimously to approve the directive instructing county employees “to make every effort to purchase products necessary to the operation of St. Louis County locally.”
“If we want property taxpayers to stay here, then as a county you also have to look at purchasing from them,” said Commissioner Keith Nelson, who spurred conversations about the purchasing rules and regulations after realizing the county spent $147,000 on Amazon in 2018.
Nelson sent an e-mail to all county employees in June asking: “Why the **** are we using Amazon?”
“If you ask me personally,” he said in an interview Tuesday, “Amazon is destroying Main Street America.”
Last year’s Amazon spending doesn’t alarm Nelson because of its size. In all, the amount comprises less than 1% of county spending.
He is concerned about the possibility of that bill growing in years to come. And about the effects that growth could have on local businesses and small town communities.
“I have 27 empty storefronts in Virginia, Minnesota, on our main street,” Nelson said. “If you drive to Ely, the two UPS trucks that go to Ely every day, they now pull trailers. The businesses up there have dried up and folded up.”
St. Louis County is not asking departments to spend more to support local businesses — prices have to be competitive. Additionally, there are instances where county staff would be unable to find the exact goods or services they need in the region.
“We’re not going to totally get rid of Amazon,” Donna Viskoe, St. Louis County’s purchasing division director, said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “We do have a responsibility of stewardship to the taxpayers.”
But if it’s simply a matter of convenience, Nelson said, the county — which is buying desks and chairs and rubber bands and “a true myriad of other objects” — should be contributing to the local economy.
That’s where the resolution came in. Though the county’s purchasing rules and regulations already had a note urging employees to buy from local businesses, the resolution outlines efforts county staff should make to reach out to local businesses for specific or reoccurring purchases to allow them the chance to match prices or cater to specific county needs.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Nelson also said trying to keep online purchases as low as possible improves the county’s accountability because it often requires employees to get bids for purchases.
Business properties in St. Louis County bring in more than $34 million in property taxes each year, according to the resolution.
“As local businesses go away,” Nelson said, “where are those levies going to come from?”