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9:25 PM Tue, Nov. 13th

Court sides with counties in chase for jobs

Says they do not need to c omply with competitive bidding

PHOENIX — The state Court of Appeals on Thursday said competitive bidding laws do not apply when counties are trying to lure a specific company to the area.

In a unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel acknowledged the purpose of competitive bids is to ensure that the county -- and, by extension, the taxpayers -- gets the most money for the property. But Judge Peter Eckerstrom, writing for the court, said that does not apply when the real goal is not immediate income but longer-term economic development.

Thursday’s ruling drew criticism from the Goldwater Institute which represented three taxpayers who challenged the lease between Pima County and World View for a launch pad from which it hopes to launch individuals to the edge of space in balloons. The $15 million deal includes not only the least of a 12-acre county-owned site but also construction of a launch pad and headquarters for the company.

“Competitive bidding helps guard against favoritism, fraud and public waste,” said attorney Jim Manley. “By rejecting the necessity of this process, the court has opened the door to greater government abuse.”

Manley said the issue will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

There is no question but that counties are generally supposed to seek bids when they lease out property.

But Eckerstrom said there’s no such requirement in another statute that governs economic development efforts. And he said that exception makes sense.

“The power to spend for the purpose of retaining or creating specific employer-tenants, by leasing at less-than-market value, is directly at odds with the competitive bidding process designed to produce full-market value without respect

to the identity of the tenant,” he wrote.

In this case, the judge said, the county entered into a deal “with the express intent of creating specific numbers of jobs at defined salary levels.” And he said the county has concluded that World View’s operations -- and, by extension, the lease -- will have “a significant impact on the economic welfare of Pima County’s inhabitants.”

Eckerstrom said that means the county, having concluded it was acting under its economic development powers, “was not bound by the competitive bidding process, but was free to negotiate and contract directly with World View.”

The judges brushed aside Goldwater’s contention that Pima County could have promoted economic development and still sought bids, perhaps by limiting potential bidders to those in the aerospace and technology business.

“Imposing a bidding process, under any terms and conditions, becomes both cumbersome and illogical when the goal of the underlying transaction is not to secure the highest price for the least, but to induct a specific lessee to enter into an agreement,” the court said.