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Missoula County to ask departments to skip Amazon, buy local when possible

The one-click convenience of shopping on Amazon has county officials concerned that Missoula businesses are being overlooked for simple county purchases that could be made locally.

County Auditor David Wall and Chief Information Officer Jason Emery said the trend of online shopping, known for its convenience and good prices, has become more apparent in how and where county departments receive their goods.

But with many businesses struggling during the pandemic, sending local money to a distant retail giant may not be in the best interest of the local economy. Even under normal conditions, it’s a trend they’d like to reconsider.

“Lately, the county departments are making a lot more purchases through Amazon and other large online retailers,” Wall said. “But this being public money the county uses to purchase goods and services, and with worries about the local economy, I think it would be good to send a message that buying goods and services from local firms is important to us.”

The purchases often pertain to small items, easily found and convenient to buy online. They often include basic computer equipment like mice and toner. But they’re also available locally and the county is a large employer, so the purchases add up over time.

Emery said many county departments are often looking for the lowest price and convenience, which generally tips the scale in Amazon’s favor.

“It’s a trend they’ve been seeing – less local purchases,” Emery said. “We certainly understand we can’t spend exorbitant amounts just to buy locally. But a lot of local vendors can certainly give it a pretty fair shot. There’s certainly been conversations about it and notice has been taken by both our staff and business owners themselves.”

County officials are stewards of taxpayer money, and buying locally may cost a little more than Amazon. But it also has benefits, such as keep money in Missoula and circulating those dollars across the local economy.

Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said buying locally shouldn’t be a hard and fast rule, but the county should commit as best it can to make it happen.

“It’s Missoula County money, so let’s keep it flowing in Missoula County, otherwise we send that money out,” Slotnick said. “We’re not going to be unrealistic or have ridiculous expectations, but as much as it’s possible, let’s expect that we will explore local options with local vendors before we pop online and purchase something from Amazon.”

The county is expected to draft a resolution urging its departments to consider buying locally when it’s possible, even if it’s not always as convenient. At the same time, they believe local retailers must work with the county to offer competitive prices.

As it stands, the county’s Central Services has good relationships with local vendors, they said.

“Maybe for the sake of supporting our local economy, we’re going to have to be willing to not default to a finger click on a computer to order something up,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “We’re going to have to do more advanced planning. It might not be as quick as it would just buying something from amazon.”