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County's shrewd shoppers seek unusual, economical buys

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Posted: Sunday, September 11, 2005 10:00 pm

San Joaquin County government is a bureaucratic city unto itself, and all its departments do different things: The sheriff upholds the law; the hospital provides health care; the zoo houses wild animals; the registrar handles voting; the auditor-controller keeps records. There are too many to list.

Somebody has to do the shopping for them.

Besides office supplies, these departments use unique tools such guns and specially equipped patrol cars for the sheriff's department, asphalt-laying machinery for public works, electronic voting gadgets for the registrar's office and food for the carnivores at the zoo.

The appropriately named purchasing department finds all of the big, expensive and unusual stuff that county departments ask for such as a radio antenna and tower for the emergency services office, things you can't find at Office Depot.

The department, in a sixth-floor office at the county courthouse, is run by Cliff Baumer, who has worked for the county almost six years. Six buyers are personally responsible for making most of the requested purchases.

"Most departments are in their own little world," Baumer said. "We get to work with all of them."

During the last fiscal year, the department spent $174 million on 3,700 purchases, numbers driven up by expensive construction contracts. The same amount is estimated for this fiscal year.

Some departments may also make small purchases with their own credit cards. That money, which Baumer says adds up to no more than $1,000 per month and averages $170 per purchase, is not calculated in the $174 million.

The money is spent on various thingamabobs, doohickeys and doodads. The agricultural department, which is also responsible for regulating weights and measures, needs seals for gas pumps and all scales used at stores and markets in the county. The seals mean that the device has been inspected to work properly.

The county zoo in Micke Grove Park needs veterinary services and equipment for its residents. The sheriff's office needs boats to patrol the delta.

Occasionally, the sheriff's department needs new patrol cars, which purchasing gets from whichever Ford dealership bids lowest. Sometime soon, the department will have to find 25 hybrid vehicles that may be used for patrol. And whenever the county has property to sell -- such as a helicopter right now -- Purchasing is the only department authorized to sell it.

Baumer said that for the most part, working with all of the other departments and divisions -- he counts about 45 -- is easy. It becomes more strenuous when he is asked for brand-name items, because those are often more expensive than no-name products that work just as well.

"By law, we have to bid everything out to try and get the best deal," he said. "If you want a pencil, don't tell me you want a PT05, tell me what you want it to do."

The department's six buyers are each assigned a variety of products that they are responsible for. They do not work with specific departments, except for two of them who deal with the county hospital.

"Every day is not the same thing," buyer Norma Franco said.

The products Franco handles include county vehicles, fuel, hospital maintenance equipment, traffic paints, food and animals for the zoo. She bought an exotic bird when she first started six years ago that she said she thinks is still there.

"As far as I know," she said. "We haven't had to buy another one."

Franco has also been charged with buying trout and catfish to plant in the lake at Oak Grove Park, off Eight Mile Road between Lodi and Stockton.

"The people of that community like to go fishing, so we provide that for them," she said. "Every requisition is different from the one before."

Other recent orders have included veterinary services for a leopard at the zoo, a bomb-detection robot for the sheriff's office and food for inmates at the county jail.

Buyer Geoff Sterling, who is responsible for getting the best deals on heavy machinery, construction projects and advertising for the county, said the best part of his job is responding to the different requests he gets. He said his goal is to "find stuff cheaper than what the county wants to pay."

"This department is valuable to the whole county because we ensure that public dollars are spent in accordance with the law," he said. "We get the best product or service at the smallest price."

Contact reporter Roman Gokhman at romang@tracypress.com.

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