If you happen to a be a taxpayer in Greensboro you have no one on the City Council looking out for your interests.

At the Tuesday, Feb. 19 City Council meeting the City Council voted unanimously to postpone approving a $1.4 million four-year contract to clean the seats at the Greensboro Coliseum because United Maintenance Company that submitted the low bid was not a Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise company.  It also wasn’t locally owned, but that seemed to be a minor consideration.  The fact that the non-MWBE company had submitted the lowest bid, while two of the companies that submitted higher bids were certified MWBE companies was a real problem for the City Council.  The idea that the City Council should be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money and accept the lowest bid regardless of the race of the owner of the company was not a concern raised by anyone on the City Council.

It’s a little frightening and what was even more frightening is that leading the charge against awarding the contract to lowest responsible bidder because it was not a minority owned company was Councilmember Justin Outling who is usually one of the more reasonable members of the City Council.

Outling, who is a partner in the Brooks Pierce law firm, asked, “Are there legal constraints or requirements?  This is not a construction contract.”

He said, “Are we required legally to accept the lowest responsible bid?”

And that was the question that the city staff had different opinions on.  City Manager David Parrish said that the city did have to accept the lowest responsible bid, but Allison Staton who is with the Financial and Administrative Services Department and handled the contract for the city said that the city did not have to accept the lowest responsible bid.

Parrish, who obviously didn’t see that one coming, said, “Just give me three minutes to talk to Allison and get a better understanding.”  It took some lobbying on Parrish’s part to get the three minutes, but finally the City Council voted 8-1 to give Parrish the time he requested.  Councilmember Sharon Hightower voted against the three minute postponement.

Parrish hurried out of the Council Chambers with his cell phone in hand.  He came back a few minutes later and said he had been unable to get the information he needed about the contract, and the City Council voted to postpone the vote on the contract to its next meeting which is March 19.  According to Parrish the company that is currently cleaning the Coliseum after events, was just doing so as a favor until the city awarded the long term contract which was scheduled to start March 1.

This City Council only holds one business meeting a month which makes postponing items to the next meeting more difficult than it was with previous City Councils that held at least two business meetings a month.

It appeared the City Council, if it can do so legally, has every intention of accepting a higher bid, so the contract can be awarded to a MWBE contractor.

Hightower had her own concerns about the contract.  She questioned how a company out of Chicago could hire people to clean the Coliseum in Greensboro.  United Maintenance Company, which had the low bid, currently has the contract to clean Disney World.  If it can do Disney World, the Greensboro Coliseum should be a piece of cake, but the fact that the company is headquartered in Chicago and would have to hire workers in Greensboro was of great concern to Hightower.

Shortly after that Hightower talked about how the new MWBE program needed to be “required” so that businesses couldn’t find a way around it.  The only small problem with making the MWBE goals required is that it is illegal. But that doesn’t stop Hightower from voting against awarding contracts where the contractor didn’t meet the percentage goals for black subcontractors even when they were determined to be the lowest responsible bidder and had met the good faith effort requirements.

Hightower lately has been joined by Councilmembers Yvonne Johnson and Michelle Kennedy in voting against those contracts.  All they need are two more votes and the City Council could start denying contracts to contractors for not meeting MWBE goals which would likely create some legal issues.

The City Council unanimously approved a new MWBE program to go into effect July 1 which has far more stringent requirements for hiring MWBE subcontractors.  The prime contractor in some cases is required to make a good faith effort to enter into a joint venture agreement with a MWBE contractor and also encouraged to hire MWBE protégés to teach them the business.

But what is amazing about the new program that was barely discussed by the City Council is that it expands the area covered by the MWBE program from 10 counties to 27 counties which means MWBE contractors in Greensboro are going to have a lot more competition to get jobs.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan said that she was initially concerned that expanding the market area to 27 counties would make it more difficult for Greensboro and Guilford County MWBE contractors to get jobs, but she had been convinced that it would not.

It’s hard to see how that math works.  Both Wake and Durham counties are now in the MWBE market area which means that MWBE contractors from those counties and as far away as Yadkin and Warren Counties can now bid on jobs in Greensboro and that is supposed to make it easier for Greensboro MWBE contractors to get jobs.

The new MWBE program is not designed to be inexpensive.  Being encouraged to hire protégé subcontractors, required to make an effort at going into a joint ventures and dividing large contracts into pieces so that smaller and theoretically MWBE contractors can successfully bid on them, all come with a financial cost.

And picking up the bill for all of that will be the taxpayers of Greensboro.