Anyone who was worried that Guilford County government wasn’t taking a lack of minority-owned company participation in county contracts seriously enough can rest much easier now.

On Thursday, Jan. 5, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, out of the blue, made the stunning move of creating five new county positions to fill with employees dedicated solely to getting more minority businesses participating in contracts with Guilford County and providing goods and services to the county.

Since the 1990s, Guilford County government has had an official program meant to increase the number of minority-owned and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) participating in county construction contracts and providing the county with goods and services.

At first, those duties were simply assigned to an employee in the Guilford County Purchasing Department.

Then, about a decade ago, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston managed to get a department director-level position established for a county MWBE director.

That director, after unsuccessful efforts to increase MWBE participation, asked the board for an assistant and then for another assistant.  Those positions were eventually granted and filled and it became a three-person department.

While it took about two decades for the county to establish a department dedicated to MWBE participation and get it up to three employees, it only took a blink of an eye Thursday night for the county to take that same department from three positions to eight – nearly tripling its size in one vote.

Usually, new county positions are added in June when the county passes a new  budget.  Each year, department directors of critical services such as Emergency Services, the Sheriff’s Department, or the Department of Social Services plead, often unsuccessfully, for one or two new needed positions to be added.  They’re often turned down, however, on January 5, the commissioners, in the middle of the budget year, added five new positions to increase women-owned and minority-owned business participation.   The focus will be on minority participation because over the years the county has had some success doing business with female owned firms but has a dismal record when it comes to using minority vendors.

The January 5 vote came after the commissioners heard a summary of the results of a disparity study which recommended, among other things, hiring more county employees dedicated to promoting MWBE participation.

The board’s six Democratic commissioners and three Republican commissioners voted unanimously to back the move, which is now going to cost county taxpayers $630,000 a year to fund the five positions.

Before the vote, Alston argued that the county had tried for decades to address the MWBE issue with miserable results, and this was a chance for the board to make a real effort to tackle the problem.

The county intends to fill two of the five positions at first and then use the remainder of the $630,000 to hire outside help to increase MWBE participation until all five positions are filled.  County taxpayers will then pay that $630,000 annually in salaries and benefits for the new employees.

The county is also purchasing software that will help track the amount of success of MWBE programs, though county officials couldn’t immediately provide the cost of that software.

The three Republican commissioners all asked some challenging questions that suggested they had serious concerns about the move but in the end they voted to approve the action just as the Democratic commissioners did.  It’s not uncommon for the Republican Guilford County commissioners to “pick their battles” and vote yes when it’s clear that the Democrats have enough votes to pass a motion.