Balto. Co. to review minority practices

Smith seeks to expand county's spending with disadvantaged businesses

December 10, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Hoping to give minority- and women-owned businesses a bigger share of county spending, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. plans to announce today the first major changes in the minority business program in nearly 20 years.

Among the proposals Smith is to unveil this morning is a "disparity study" - an investigation of how the county's rate of spending with minority firms stacks up against their share of the marketplace.

Such a study must be done to increase the minority business goals the county established in the early 1980s.

Smith said yesterday that he will also expand the types of spending subject to the county's minority contracting goals; cut to $50,000 the minimum size of a contract that triggers the goals; require the county to look for qualified minority firms when it re-bids existing contracts; and re-establish a commission to monitor minority contracting.

"These goals are pretty old, and the county has changed demographically to a significant degree," Smith said yesterday. "I think that being pro-active in inviting inclusion is the future of the county. We want everyone to take part in all aspects of county life and business."

Smith will need County Council approval to spend the $200,000 to $250,000 he estimates will be needed to study how well county spending matches up with the demographics of the marketplace.

The other changes can be made without a council vote.

Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz said he agrees that it's important to ensure fairness. But he cautioned Smith to make sure that isn't accomplished at the taxpayers' expense.

He referred to reports last week that Baltimore City government violated its spending rules to give more business to a minority-owned light bulb supplier, costing taxpayers $40,000.

"I don't want that to happen in Baltimore County," Kamenetz said. "No $7 light bulbs here."

Wayne Frazier, president of the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association, called the moves "long overdue."

"All this does is, it provides opportunities for those who have been shut out to participate," Frazier said. "I'm in favor of a disparity study or any type of study that will ultimately reveal what we in small business have been saying - it will verify that small and minority business is shut out."

Smith made minority inclusion a campaign issue last year, and election data suggest that support from the county's rapidly growing African-American population was a major factor in his victory.

County officials have defended their record on minority contracting, noting that the county usually meets its goal of giving 10 percent of construction business to minority firms, 2 percent to women-owned firms, and at least $750,000 a year in other spending to minority firms.

However, those goals have not been evaluated or changed since they were instituted in 1983 and 1984, and the county trails other large Maryland counties, such as Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery, in minority contracting.

If the study Smith commissions demonstrates that the county's goals are inadequate, the executive said, he will change them.

Montgomery County periodically conducts such studies and re-evaluates its goals annually to reflect how closely county spending mirrors the demographics of the marketplace. Minority and women-owned businesses got about 20 percent of Montgomery's spending last year, according to a report from the county's procurement office.

Smith also plans to increase the types of spending that are subject to the 10 percent/2 percent goals to include architectural, engineering and other professional services, along with equipment and supplies. Currently, only construction contracts are subject to that goal.

The county estimates that the change will increase the amount of spending subject to those goals by $75 million a year, which is about 42 percent of county purchases.

Currently, only construction contracts of $100,000 or more are subject to the goals, but Smith said he plans to change the threshold to $50,000. County officials were unable to determine yesterday how much of an impact that change would have had in recent years.

Smith said he will also require that all contracts due for re-bidding be reviewed by the county's minority business enterprise officer to determine whether any minority or women-owned firms are qualified to provide the goods or services.

The reforms Smith plans to propose were recommended by an internal committee that the executive chartered in August to evaluate the county's contracting and hiring practices. Smith said he expects a full report from the committee by the end of the year. He said he does not expect more recommendations on minority contracting but does anticipate suggestions for ways to improve the county's minority hiring record.

Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, the first African-American to serve on the council, termed the plans "a good start." He said lowering the threshold for the size of contracts subject to the goal will be a big help to minority businesses, many of which are too small to compete for larger contracts.

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