VOL. 132 | NO. 78 | Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Shelby County Commissioners Pledge to ‘Push It’ on Minority Business Contracts
By Bill Dries
Shelby County commissioners took a hard line Monday, April 17, on increasing the share of county government contracts for minority and locally owned businesses now that it has a plan for tackling a documented disparity for such contracts.
And the hard line is an indication of a history of past plans getting derailed first by court challenges and then by bureaucratic red tape over at least the last 20 years.
“We’re going to change it,” commissioner Reginald Milton said during a sometimes intense discussion. “And it’s going to happen right here so you had just as well get used to it.”
The minority business push began with a call to use more local bond counsels on county government bond issues.
The commission then approved, after much debate, two design contracts totaling $3.2 million for planning and design work on anti-flooding projects across Shelby County. Those funds are part of a $60 million federal resiliency grant the county won for three projects that will be built or otherwise in place by Sept. 30, 2021.
Commissioners pushed for more assurances that the administration would insist on the use of minority and local subcontractors on the projects. The federal standard requires contractors to consider using minority businesses. It doesn’t require it.
And minority contractors complained Monday that they are being overlooked by general contractors on early design work for the projects.
County Public Works Director Tom Needham pushed for passage of the two contracts after several delays in recent weeks. He said the contracts are a small part of the dollar amount and contracts to come in the next 2 1/2 years include another $15 million local match from county capital funds.
He said minority-owned businesses are being considered and expressed concern that the federal funding could be lost to competing cities that weren’t awarded grants.
Commissioner Heidi Shafer asked Needham several times if a delay in approval would mean a loss of the federal grant money before Needham conceded it would not.
“We’re sort of asked to be rubber-stampers,” she said. “I don’t like smoke and mirrors. I don’t like people making it sound like we are going to lose it when we aren’t.”
Commissioner Van Turner said he and other commissioners would continue to push on the issue.
“We understand that you get it,” he told Needham. “From a cognitive standpoint, we are all there. I don’t want the persons who were bold enough to bring this up to be retaliated against. … Those folks are still not engaged. And we decided this two, three months ago. … We want the process to yield results.”
Turner cited the pending rebidding of a security services contract over concerns expressed by Top Notch Security, a minority-owned firm, that it has not been contacted about the rebidding process.
Milton also noted Needham’s frustration as commissioners continue to seek assurances.
“We’ve waited decades to be treated fairly,” he said of African-Americans and women in business. “Your short period of frustration is of no significance to me. We are going to push it. We are going to correct this problem. This is the direction we are moving in.”
All of the commissioners agreed on the general point, but some expressed concern about the commission directing contracts to some subcontractors.
Commissioner Steve Basar specifically used the term “steering” and drew a sharp response from Turner.
“What have we been doing the last 30 years, 40 years?” Turner asked. “African-American and women-owned companies have not been getting the contracts. They have not been steered toward any of the disenfranchised folks. … We’ve been to a point now where we are just going to have to shut it down until we can get some progress. There’s an excuse every time.”
The commission also approved Monday the creation of a new “chief supplier diversity officer” to be appointed by the commission chairman and work within the administration’s Equal Opportunity Compliance office.
“This office would represent our interests,” Basar said, adding that it is a position he hopes will be an active recruiter of minority and locally owned businesses to bid.
Commissioner Mark Billingsley agreed.
“We are looking for the chief sales director for the new MWBE program,” he said. “Someone who is going to educate the public on this new program and help be an advocate.”
The commission delayed creating three new full-time positions within the EOC office amid discussions about how broad a role they would have and how much independence they and the diversity officer would have to report findings to the commission.
The three new positions were described as necessary to certify that businesses bidding on county government contracts are minority or locally owned businesses. But commissioner Willie Brooks said he saw the positions as being more analytical.
Commissioners will discuss the matter next month in the first committee sessions of the month.