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Laptops of Luxury

City computer buys get councilor thinking high tech

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On Jan. 2, 2000, the City of Pittsburgh's Finance Department bought two Hewlett-Packard Laser Jet 8000 printers -- one for $2,500, the other for $4,000, according to city records. In June 2001, the Emergency Medical Services unit and Fire Bureau bought three Compaq Armada E500 laptops in four days -- at three different prices, ranging from $2,750 to $3,008. Those are the kinds of oddities City Councilor Bill Peduto discovered recently when he looked over a list of city assets. "You'll find a great disparity in prices we're paying for products that are the same," Peduto told council on Sept. 16.

Craig Kwiecinski, spokesman for Mayor Tom Murphy, says the price differences aren't the result of poor shopping skills. "There is often some degree of customization for various products based upon the individual needs of each department or bureau," says Kwiecinski. The city makes most of its computer purchases through the state, which uses its buying power to drive down prices, he says.

Since 2000, the city has bought 17 laptops ranging from $2,649 to $4,500, according to a list of assets that are worth more than $2,500. (Computer purchases for less than $2,500 aren't on the asset list.) The most expensive laptop went to council. The city also bought nine laser printers ranging in price from $2,500 to the $6,646 and paid for a Hewlett-Packard 8550N, which went to the Public Safety Department.

Peduto thinks the city could do better. He'd like to see the city outsource all of its purchasing to a company like Downtown-based FreeMarkets, which conducts online "reverse auctions" in which companies bid for the right to supply products to buyers. Combine city and Allegheny County purchasing, he says, and you'd have lots of suppliers bidding down the prices of everything from paperclips to salt trucks.

Peduto's purchasing proposal wasn't the only budget-cutting concept floated before council. Squirrel Hill resident Les Ludwig used council's public comment period to suggest that, among other things, the city plant only perennial rather than annual flora, reducing the need for future plantings.

Can these ideas be merged? Hard to say. A search of FreeMarkets' Web site revealed no history of reverse-auction buying of delphiniums, phlox or hostas. There's always eBay.

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