Minority Firms Miss Contracting

County Purchasing Has No Race-based Preferences

March 24, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

MANCHESTER — In the world of government contracts, this one was barely noticeable-- a $1.3 million pumping station for the town's expanded sewage treatment plant.

One contracting firm, Conewago Contractors of Hanover, Pa., bid on the project when it was advertised in November.

As the only bidder, it seemed almost impossible Conewago would not be awarded the contract.

But regulations calling for the solicitation of minority-owned subcontractors on all projects with funding from the federal or state governments almost left Conewago without thejob and the town without a contractor.

It wasn't that Conewago was unwilling to search for minority-owned businesses to do parts of the project. The 200-employee concern contacted nearly a dozen minority-owned firms in Maryland over more than a month, according to the town's sewage plant consultant, Todd Black.

None of the minority-owned companies returned bids, he said.

"Anything I say would probablyget me into trouble. There are a lot of problems involved," said a Conewago official who declined to comment further. "There are so many difficulties that, if you're not in the business, it's hard to understand."

Conewago is not alone in its unsuccessful quest for minority-owned businesses to take part in county public works projects.

While the state and county could not provide the number of minority-owned businesses in Carroll County, only about 1,700 statewide are registered with the state Department of Transportation, the state agency designated to certify minority businesses wishing to bid on state-funded projects.

"The majority of minority-owned firms we have registered are from Baltimore and Washington," said John Covert, deputy director of the Division of Fair Practices in the Transportation Department.

Of the $1.5 billion in contracts awarded last year by the state, minority-owned businesses were given $150 million worth of the work, Covert said. That figure just meets Maryland guidelines for minority participation in state projects, he said.

Carroll, on the other hand, has no formal guidelines. And since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1989 invalidated Richmond, Va.'s minority set-aside ordinance, most other counties and cities have no formal guidelines either.

But that's not the main reason for their non-involvement in the morethan $50 million worth of contracts awarded each year in the county,officials say.

"The county, historically, has not taken a preference," said Richard Shelton, a buyer in the county's Purchasing Department. "We keep the bidding process open to anybody. We don't differentiate based on race, in Carroll or out of Carroll. Our system here does not allow us to give special consideration. We always go with the lowest bidder."

The county awards thousands of contracts a year, for projects ranging from schools or highways to the purchasing of pencils and paper clips.

Part of the difficulty in finding minoritiesinterested in the county's annual project awards is that the county has no more than a handful of minority-owned contracting firms, observers say.

"I really can't think of more than a few," said Nelson B. Dorsey, a U.S. Postal Service employee and Carroll native who invests in rental property.

According to 1990 Census figures, minorities account for only about 4 percent of Carroll's 130,000 citizens. Andthey make up only a small portion of the 2,000 businesses here, the county's Department of Economic and Community Development says.

Inaddition to the county's problem of finding locally owned minority firms, attracting minority firms from Baltimore or Washington or the Harrisburg, Pa., areas has proved difficult, officials say.

"In theeight years I've been here, only a couple of participants in the procurement process have been minorities," Shelton said.

And while the county -- and Carroll's eight municipalities -- have no formal rules on minority participation in the public works process, there is a decided preference to award projects to county-based firms.

"If we don't know the origin of a contractor, we have a real solid inclination to go with a contractor who has ties to the county," Commissioner Vice President Elmer C. Lippy Jr. said. "I would think we would want to look first to Carroll County-owned businesses, whether they're minority-owned or not."

Commissioner President Donald I. Dell often has expressed his desire to retain county businesses to build projectsbeing paid for by county tax dollars.

And the Carroll business community also has an interest in trying to win bids for county projects.

At an Economic and Development Commission meeting last summer,several representatives expressed displeasure at many of the rules in the government procurement process, seeing some of those rules as steering some of the county's public works business to out-of-county firms.

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