Last month, at a Thursday, Jan. 17 Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Skip Alston was furious that the county was about to enter into a $14-million construction contract that included zero percent black business participation – but he has now discovered that that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Alston said this week that when he, with the help of county staff, looked into the situation, the four other companies that bid on the construction project were in the same boat as far as black participation was concerned.

“All five had no black participation,” Alston said of the competing companies.

The controversy began early this year when the county seemed set to enter into a contract with New Atlantic Contracting Inc. out of Winston-Salem to build a $14-million Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility.  It was virtually a done deal until Alston discovered there was no black participation in New Atlantic’s proposal and he managed to convince the board to put the decision on hold and look for alternatives – such as rebidding the project or finding a legal way to go with higher bidder rather than the lowest.

New Atlantic did have 25.3 percent minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) represented in their proposal; the problem for Alston was that that number consisted of 21.6 percent women-owned firms, 3.7 percent Hispanic, and 0 percent black.

Alston said the fact that none of the other bidders had any black participation made the situation all the more frustrating.  He said he feels as though the current white-majority Board of Commissioners has created an atmosphere in which construction companies don’t feel as though they even need to make a nod toward black participation when submitting a contract to Guilford County.

“I think they feel like they don’t have to because they have five white male Republicans controlling the board,” Alston said.

Alston has been saying ever since the controversy initially erupted that Guilford County “needs to put the ‘B’ back into MWBE” (despite the fact that the B actually stands for “Business”).  While Alston may think that that effort to push for more black participation in construction contracts is going to be left to the three black county commissioners on the nine-member board, it was evident at the Jan. 17 meeting that several white commissioners were also disturbed that New Atlantic came to the county with a proposal that had zero black participation.

Commissioner Justin Conrad wasn’t at that meeting but he said this week that he completely understands where Alston is coming from.

“Let’s call it like it is – they’re right,” Conrad said this week.  “Skip has a point. It is so glaring if the number is zero.”

Conrad said he’s surprised a company would come before the commissioners and not know that would be a consideration.

Commissioner Alan Perdue said that New Atlantic had surpassed state and county MWBE goals by including over 25 percent women-owned and Hispanic businesses, and he said he wondered if the county was getting out of line by parsing the MWBE goals into finer distinctions than the state does.

Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said Guilford County already bends over backwards in its efforts to get black and other minority businesses to apply for county projects, and he added that, in the current booming economy, all firms that do good work have no trouble finding work no matter who owns them.

Branson said there are real consequences for delaying or rebidding large projects. He said it almost always makes them more expensive.

“It’s not doing the citizen’s a whole lot of good whatsoever,” he said of the current debate.