On Thursday, May 3, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners heard a very disappointing report from the Guilford County Purchasing Department on the county’s use – or rather its lack of use – of Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBE).

The report had several commissioners visibly perturbed and now Commissioner Skip Alston is calling for the county to hire a full-time MWBE director who would answer directly to the county manager and focus exclusively on upping Guilford County’s use of MWBE contractors and suppliers.

Late in 2017, the county – led by Commissioners Carolyn Coleman, Carlvena Foster and Alston, the three black commissioners – made MWBE participation in county contracts a point of emphasis; and a segment of the board’s annual retreat in February was dedicated to the issue. At the retreat, the board had a lengthy discussion on ways to increase MWBE use and staff was charged with taking actions that would achieve that goal.

So when, at the May 3 meeting, commissioners saw the dismal new MWBE numbers for the first three months of 2018, some commissioners were obviously very displeased by the new numbers – especially the numbers for African-American suppliers and service providers.

MWBE participation in the county’s business has become a hot-button issue these days since the county currently has some major construction and renovation projects in the works. Since tens of millions of dollars will be spent by the county on construction over the next two years, this is seen as an important time to get more MWBE involvement. The county is building a new Animal Shelter and a new Emergency Services maintenance center and is making major renovations to the old jail in downtown Greensboro.

At the May 3 meeting in the Old Guilford County Court House, the board’s three black commissioners had plenty of questions about the report and the county’s lack of progress.

In the category of “Construction and Repairs,” 0 percent of the work went to black-owned businesses, and the amount of goods and supplies purchased by Guilford County from businesses was 1 percent. In the “Information and Technology Services” category, the use of black-owned businesses and providers was less than 1 percent.   Across all categories, the use of black-owned businesses totaled only 5 percent.

In the new report, African Americans did beat out American Indians, which got 0 percent of the county’s business in every category across the board. Asian Pacific vendors and suppliers got 1 percent of the county’s business in the first quarter of 2018, while Hispanic businesses got less than 1 percent.

Even white females, a group that traditionally does a little better in this regard, only got 5 percent of the county’s business.

In all, 88 percent of the county’s money for outside services went to either companies owned by white males or to corporations, which are typically run by a board and have white-male-dominated executive ranks.

Alston said the day after the May 3 meeting that virtually all of the county’s business is now going to white males. He said that, for years and years, the county has used the same construction companies and service providers – ones that are part of the same old network dominated by the usual white males. He said that, at this point, Guilford County clearly needs a full-time MWBE director.

Alston said that, while the county does currently have a Purchasing Department position assigned to MWBE efforts, that office isn’t given the authority and tools it needs to effect what Alston said is a needed systematic change throughout the government. He said that county staff has been non-responsive to commissioners requests to address the issue.

“I am not impressed,” Alston said of what the county has done in the last half year since this issue has been a point of emphasis. “The county manager needs to make this a priority and we need to hire an MWBE director.”

Alston said that since the Board of Commissioners is made up largely of white males – the five Republican commissioners who call most of the shots – he wonders if there’s a tendency among staff to think that this isn’t an important priority.

Alston said it’s true Guilford County has to go with the lowest bidder on many projects – and therefore the county can’t choose a minority firm even if its bid is close to a white firm’s winning bid; but Alston added that there are a host of strategies the county can take that would significantly up MWBE participation. He said other local governments operating under the same constraints have seen success.

Alston said county contracts amounting to less than $30,000, for instance, do not have to be bid competitively and more of that business could go to African-American firms.

It’s important to note that while contracts under $30,000 don’t have to go to the lowest responsible bidder, there is a cost for going with a supplier or business that’s charging more. If the county does choose MWBE firms over less expensive alternatives, that will certainly increase the percentage of women and minority vendors but it will also mean that taxpayers end up paying more for goods and services. Higher costs over time generally mean either higher tax rates or service cuts.

Alston also said that, when the county puts major contracts out for bids, it can include suggestions that a contractor make every effort to use MWBE businesses when possible. The county cannot legally require a certain percentage of the work be given to MWBE firms, but it can strongly encourage the companies to make good faith efforts to use those firms when possible.

The commissioners who are vocal on this subject also say the county can use strategies such as slicing very large contracts into smaller ones where MWBE businesses – which are often smaller firms – would have a greater chance to win the contract.

Alston said that things like more outreach to let minority vendors know about opportunities with Guilford County and more seminars informing businesses how to take part in the bid process would help. Alston said he didn’t want to be critical of current county staff because he believes county staff assigned to the problem are doing what they can, but he added that the county needs a complete overhaul of its thinking in this area.

For 17 years, Commissioner Carolyn Coleman has been advocating very loudly for more minority participation in county contracts. At Coleman’s request, at the February retreat the commissioners heard at length from the program director of the North Carolina Department of Administration’s Office for Historically Underutilized Businesses, who spoke on strategies the county could adopt in this effort. At that time, the commissioners discussed the strategy of giving more of the jobs that were under $30,000 in total cost to MWBE firms.

Coleman said at the May 3 meeting that apparently none of that was being done yet.

“I thought the last time we had the report, we talked about this,” Coleman said. “None of that has happened since then?”

The two women on the hot seat that night were Guilford County Purchasing Director Susan Crotts and Sheila Reaves-Willett, the diversity coordinator for that department.

Reaves-Willett told Coleman that the changes were being implemented and the results should show up soon.

“That’s one of the initiatives that we are working on,” she said of getting more of the lower-priced contracts to MWBE providers.

Reaves-Willett said the Purchasing Department was getting that information out to various county departments, which make a lot purchasing decisions internally.

Crotts also spoke on that effort. She said advances had been made on internal county communication to let departments know about these opportunities.

“It’s now in an easy-to-use system,” Crotts said, adding that it allows staff in all departments to submit queries for needed goods and services to see if there’s a minority firm that can meet the need for those smaller jobs.

“They can look at this list of vendors who have told us they are ready, willing and eager to work with the county,” Crotts told the commissioners.

She said she thought it would be a valuable tool in this effort as county employees learned to use it.

Coleman wasn’t satisfied.

“The people out here have been waiting a long time – so we’re just starting this now?” Coleman said. “It just goes on and on and on. We’re about to build three buildings and I certainly hope that we will make every effort on this.”

According to other parts of the report presented at the May 3 meeting, county staff is currently taking steps to increase the amount of MWBE participation in county projects and contracts. The Purchasing Department is in contact with the North Carolina MWBE Coordinators’ Network to see what strategies are working elsewhere in the state, and the department is now performing a daily review of MWBE efforts. In April, the Purchasing Department participated in the annual Gate City Minority Business Opportunity Fair and, in May, the department is holding a workshop at the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship for MWBE providers. It is also coordinating with the Budget Department and Information Services in these efforts.   In addition, Guilford County is using services of its new public relations position to help get the word of MWBE workshops out to media outlets.

At the commissioners’ retreat in February, one black contractor who had worked with Guilford County years ago told they board that the county attempted to undermine him at every turn by, for instance, not allowing the workers access to areas and by changing deadlines to make them impossible to meet.

At that time, Commissioner Jeff Phillips made a passionate plea stating that he hoped minority businesses weren’t shying away from county contracts because of that reputation. Phillips said that, if that were the case, he wanted word to go out loud and clear that the county was very eager to work with minority firms.

Former Guilford County Property Management Director David Grantham, who retired in 2012, said it never was the case that Guilford County undermined minority businesses. Grantham said, in a very colorful way, that those claims to that effect were patently false, and he added, “And you can quote me on that!”

The Rhino Times has chosen not to quote exactly what Grantham said, since this is a family-oriented publication.