Should a public entity – a school board or a county commission, for instance – make purchases through Amazon?
That’s a question being raised in Minot, where members of the Ward County Commission are wondering aloud whether they should buy items at a cheaper price through the retail giant or simply shop at home.
No doubt, plenty of first-thought, knee-jerk reactions will arise, depending on the school of thought. Is it a sin that a local board is shopping outside of its retail trade zone? Shouldn’t anything that saves even a few taxpayer dollars be considered?
A report that originated with the Minot Daily News explored both outlooks. It came after a highway engineer was given approval to set up a basic account on Amazon on behalf of the county. The account is on a “for now” basis, but it stirred debate at a recent commission meeting.
We believe a local public-elected entity should be expected to shop at home. So does Ward County Commissioner Alan Walter.
“Does Amazon own any property here that they pay real estate taxes on?” asked Walter. “Do they have employees that live here and pay real estate taxes. We can’t find these deals without going through this?”
The trouble, says another commissioner, is cost savings. According to the Daily News report, the Ward County auditor said a piece of equipment found online was priced at $149; to buy it locally would have cost $500.
This isn’t just a Ward County Commission conundrum. A 2018 poll conducted by National Public Radio and the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found that 69% of adults surveyed have purchased something online. Amazon usually is the source of that traffic; according to the poll, 92% of online shoppers bought something from Amazon.
And Amazon’s reach isn’t limited to the usual retail fare. Its Prime subscription service – which now includes more than 75 million U.S. subscribers – offers perks ranging from free shipping to movies. All told, Amazon is an $800 million beast.
But Amazon does not have a local presence in the great majority of U.S. cities and towns, which means the company isn’t paying property taxes or local employee salaries. Yet a large retailer like Home of Economy has locations in towns throughout this region – Devils Lake, Grand Forks and yes, even Minot – and makes great contributions locally through its payroll, its property taxes and its role as a magnet that draws shoppers to those towns.
Public entities must understand the importance of shopping local. An occasional purchase worth $500 on Amazon won’t close the doors of a local retailer, but the message it sends certainly won’t help.
This editorial first appeared in the Grand Forks Herald Sept. 12.