Guilford County’s three black commissioners have been talking a lot recently about the need for the county to hire a Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) coordinator to promote more county purchases from minority businesses – so they had a moment of major confusion when they were told recently that the county had already hired an MWBE coordinator.

Guilford County Commissioners Carolyn Coleman, Ray Trapp and Carlvena Foster all said they were initially taken aback when they heard the news that Guilford County hired a new MWBE coordinator without anyone talking to them first.

Coleman said she was “shocked and surprised” when Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier told her that the county had hired a new MWBE coordinator.

Coleman said she had wanted to offer some info and had some qualified candidates in mind for the job.

Foster said, “Nobody really knew,” and Trapp said, “It did catch us off guard; I guess this is one of those things where staff might have gotten a little out there.”

It turns out, however, that despite their consternation, it wasn’t such a bold move by staff after all. Guilford County administrators hadn’t created a new position; the county only filled a vacant Purchasing Department job devoted to enhancing MWBE numbers on top of the purchasing agent duties. The question is still open whether the county will add a new position dedicated full to MWBE efforts, but the rest of the board – which is much more conservative than Coleman, Trapp and Foster – would be a much harder sell.

Coleman, Trapp and Foster all said Guilford County is doing very poorly in minority participation and has been for years. They said the county needs to ramp up its efforts; and it’s an item that will be addressed at the county’s annual retreat, which this year will be held on Thursday, Feb. 9 and Friday, Feb. 10.

Guilford County’s adopted goal is to have 10 percent or more of all county purchases and contracts for goods and services go to MWBE firms. The county is limited in its ability to meet that goal, however, because when awarding contracts for goods, the county is required by law to go with the lowest responsible bidder. The county does have more leeway with service contracts, as well as with purchases that do not have to go through the bid process. The county can do things like contact MWBE vendors and encourage them to submit bids for Guilford County projects and the Purchasing Department can also structure contracts in such a way that makes it easier for smaller firms to win bids.

In April 2016, the last time the board heard a report on MWBE numbers, Guilford County had a participation rate of 8 percent for the first nine months of fiscal 2015-2016. Later, staff came back and said the number had been calculated incorrectly and it was actually closer to 6 percent. The majority of that number is made up of women businesses.

Foster said Guilford County’s results are unacceptable.

“Those numbers are ridiculously low,” she said.

Purchasing officials stated in April that that office had increased its outreach to MWBE firms, but, at a Board of Commissioners meeting on Thursday, Sept. 1 of last year, it was clear that some commissioners don’t feel Guilford County has been making enough progress in that regard. At that time, and in subsequent meetings, there was some lively discussion about the possibility of the creating a full-time MWBE coordinator position.   That was one reason for the confusion when Guilford County filled the existing position partially devoted to MWBE efforts.

Foster said that, as it is now, Guilford County continues to do business with the same firms and doesn’t do enough to seek out minority-owned businesses.

“We get in the habit of doing business the same way with the same people,” Foster said.

Some of that, though, is due to the fact that on contracts the county has to go with the lowest responsible bid.

Foster is a former member of the Guilford County Board of Education, which constantly talks about trying to improve the school’s MWBE numbers, and she said the county commissioners hear the same types of excuses from county staff that the school board heard from school staff when she served on that board.

“It was the same thing on the school board – ‘We can’t find qualified MWBE firms,’ or ‘They can’t make the bonds,’” Foster said.

Foster added that Guilford County needs to be more proactive and must use strategies like breaking larger contracts into smaller ones to make the work more accessible to MWBE firms.

Coleman has been leading the charge for the county to get a full-time MWBE coordinator rather than have those responsibilities given on a half-time basis to a buyer in the Purchasing Department.   She said her pleas to county directors to seek out more minority firms have fallen on deaf ears.

Guilford County did create a full-time MWBE coordinator position about a decade ago. That job paid a salary of $52,300 plus benefits, which meant it was costing the county just under $69,000 a year. Having someone full-time to orchestrate MWBE efforts didn’t budge the needle much if at all and, in 2009 – when the Democrats were in control of the board and former Chairman Skip Alston was leading it – Guilford County eliminated that position.

Though some commissioners would like to see Guilford County go down that road, hoping the second time’s a charm, the main theme from Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeff Phillips is that the county isn’t going to repeat the mistakes of the past while he’s running the board. And some people say hiring a dedicated MWBE coordinator that didn’t increase the numbers was a mistake. It would certainly be an uphill battle to get the Republican-majority board to hire a full-time dedicated MWBE coordinator in the current atmosphere but most seem open to less costly methods of increasing the percentage of the county’s business with MWBE firms.

In the meantime, behind the scenes, county staff has been overhauling the county’s current efforts, and new strategies and initiatives are expected to be presented at the retreat when the board discusses MWBE purchasing.

The new Guilford County Buyer/MWBE Coordinator Sheila Reaves-Willett has worked in a similar capacity for Guilford Technical Community College, NC A&T State University and the Guilford County school system.

Reaves-Willett said she hopes to meet jointly with Grier and county department heads to find ways to increase the county’s numbers.

“I’d like to look at spending among departments to see some good faith efforts,” Reaves-Willet said.

While some county officials are trying to get those numbers up, at least one commissioner doesn’t see it as something that should be a matter of focus on the board, especially when the county is facing so many other major issues.

Commissioner Alan Branson said Guilford County already bends over backwards to bring in MWBE businesses but, in a lot of the cases, he said, the county can’t do it because there are no applicants who meet MWBE criteria and the county’s needs. Branson said there are limits to the extent that the county can increase MWBE participation.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” Branson said.

He said that the extent to which the county and other local governments already do this, he doesn’t consider it a good thing. Branson runs a trucking company and he said that he doesn’t like it when favoritism is shown to a firm in the private sector because it’s minority- or female-owned.

“I disagree with that 100 percent,” Branson said of the practice. “It’s almost like bid-rigging.”

“I get sick and tired of this,” he added. “Fair is fair. My experience has been that, if you bid the job and do the job right, it shouldn’t make a difference.”

He said firms that consistently offer competitive bids and do quality work naturally get chosen for jobs again, regardless of the race or sex of the person running that company. He said his trucking company, Stout Trucking, has to go out and bid against competition all the time and he doesn’t believe it’s right for some companies to have an unfair advantage in that process.

“We all put on our pants one leg at a time,” he said.

Branson also said he’s been the victim of reverse discrimination and that left a bad taste in his mouth. He said he once applied for a fire department job with the City of Greensboro and he didn’t get it. He found out later, he said, it was because a black applicant would help the department meet a quota and that was one of the considerations that put that applicant ahead of Branson.

“I was shot down by the city’s fire department because I was white,” Branson said.

While Branson doesn’t think it’s a good idea to enhance the county’s MWBE efforts, Trapp said it is incumbent on the board to work diligently to raise those numbers to some sort of respectable level.

“I think you have to put some emphasis on it,” Trapp said. “We, as elected officials, need to get more involved with contractors to let them know the work is available.”

Trapp said the commissioners themselves should beat the bushes in the community and help find MWBE vendors for county goods, services and contracts.

“I put some of that on staff and some of that on us,” he said of himself and his fellow commissioners.

Trapp also said that, on the street where he lives on, the residents are very diverse with a roughly equal proportion of various minorities.

“That’s the African Americans; that’s the Hispanics; that’s the Asians – these are the people I represent. I have to look at minority numbers.”