Minority firm wants out of light bulb pact with city

Black-owned company blames price increase by its supplier

April 07, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

The black-owned firm that won a racially infused bidding war for a city light bulb contract in 2003 is asking to be released from the deal.

The $1.1 million award cast questions over the city's strident efforts to funnel more Baltimore business to minority- and women-owned companies. The city went to great lengths to help B&B Lighting Supply land the contract, including the mayor making calls to light bulb distributors on B&B's behalf.

But in a letter to the city's purchasing department dated March 10, B&B President Sharon Bradford asked to be let out of the two-year contract.

"B&B Lighting Company would like to thank the City of Baltimore for it's patronage and support throughout our business dealings," Bradford wrote. "However due to Sylvania no longer honoring state pricing, unfortunately B&B Lighting Company will no longer be able to fulfill our contractual obligations. ...

"We are asking that our contract with the City of Baltimore be discontinued immediately."

The city has not accepted B&B's desire to end the contract. Samuel Lloyd, director of the Mayor's Office of Minority Business Development, has contacted Bradford trying to salvage the deal, and she said yesterday that she would like to do that.

"In spite of the price increase from Sylvania," Bradford wrote in an e-mail to The Sun, "we are confident that we will be able to satisfy the City contract. We are happy to be working with the City of Baltimore and appreciate this opportunity."

A spokesman for Sylvania said there has been "no change" in its agreed-on contract with B&B.

The deal "has not changed," said Ron O'Brien. "Apparently what's changed is B&B's desire to sell product to the City of Baltimore.

"Sylvania has a national reputation, and we would not be in the position we are in if we were engaging in those types of practices," O'Brien added.

Frustration

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who just weeks ago spoke of how proud he was that in four years city minority contracts have nearly doubled, expressed frustration yesterday at the possibility of losing this one.

One of the mayor's stated priorities has been to boost minority awards so that they made up 35 percent of all city contracts.

"It's disappointing they had to pull out of it," O'Malley said. "We worked very hard to make sure there is a level playing field."

The mayor predicted that critics of his efforts on behalf of minority businesses - and this business in particular - would jump on B&B's situation to make a point.

"They'll say, `I told you so,'" O'Malley said.

The president of the company that lost the city light bulb contract to B&B said just that upon hearing that B&B wanted out of the deal.

Competitor's reaction

Robert A. Mills III, president of the white-owned C.N. Robinson Lighting Supply, the company that held the bulb contract for 25 years, laughed when he heard about Bradford's letter.

"That's exactly what we stood before the Board of Estimates and argued was going to happen," Mills said. "They didn't know what they were doing. They were in way over their head."

During a heated bidding process in 2003, it was revealed that the city was buying thousands of dollars worth of light bulbs from B&B, despite being under contract with C.N. Robinson.

When B&B came in as the low bidder for the city's new contract, Mills protested. The city arranged for a second bid after it was discovered that the city's purchasing director had eliminated two contract requirements, making it easier for minority firms to bid.

Mills said he doubts that the city's well-intentioned efforts on behalf of minority firms are working.

"They say we're doing this to help promote minorities," he said. "It's a farce. They're using your tax dollars and the cost of the commodity to buy votes."

`Growing pains'

Lloyd, however, said that until Bradford's letter, which he said "came out of the blue," the city has had no problems working with B&B and hopes to continue the business relationship.

Eight months are left on the contract, and the city has an option to extend it for another year, Lloyd said.

"We expect to say we're going to be able to have her continue to provide the product under the arrangements of the contract," Lloyd said.

Wayne R. Frazier Sr., president of Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association, who lobbied for B&B to win the contract, said it's little surprise that B&B is having trouble fulfilling it.

"If the city is slow to pay, which they are in most cases, and a small business like B&B cannot get adequate financing, regardless of what price they get from Sylvania, they can't pay it," Frazier said.

Because minority businesses are typically new, they need nurturing, Frazier said - especially as they experience "growing pains" as B&B apparently is.

"My whole spin on all of this is B&B lived the American dream," Frazier said. "They were given a significant opportunity. But they realized they couldn't finance the dream."

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