In a surprise move at the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Thursday, June 21 meeting, the board unanimously approved the creation of a new position for Guilford County government – a director who will focus entirely on increasing the number of minority and women-owed business enterprises (MWBE) that do business with the county.

For years, Commissioners Carolyn Coleman and Skip Alston have complained frequently and bitterly that Guilford County government relies too heavily on “the good old boy network” made up almost exclusively of businesses owned by white males. The two commissioners say they hope the creation of the new position will change that.

The MWBE director job is meant to expand the county’s use of minority and female businesses through strategies such as informing MWBE companies about business opportunities with the county, actively seeking the participation of those companies and helping the county structure projects in ways that allow for more MWBE participation. For large projects or supply contracts, the county is required to select the lowest responsible bidder; but advocates for the new position argue that the new director, once hired, will be able to significantly increase the number of contracts the county awards to MWBE’s.

Though Coleman and Alston have been asking for months for the new position to be included in the 2018-2019 budget, the idea seemed completely dead in the water until the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, out of the blue, voted unanimously to create the new position at the June 21 meeting. That vote was taken immediately before the board voted to adopt a new budget for fiscal 2018-2019 – and the addition of a new county MWBE director was one of the major reasons there was a unanimous vote for that $616 million budget.

The board has five Republicans who all say they want to see more diversity when it comes to the county’s contracts and construction projects, but many are skeptical as to whether the creation of the new director position will improve that situation. Some Republicans were reluctant to add a new position and many question whether creating it will actually be effective in increasing the county’s MWBE participation.

Initially, the Democrats on the board were advocating for two MWBE positions in the budget – for a director and a support person – which was estimated to cost county taxpayers about $110,000 a year. That was a deal-breaker for some Republican commissioners. In the end, the two sides found a compromise: The board dropped the support position and took a vacant slot in the Guilford County Purchasing Department and elevated that to the new director’s position that will now be directly under the county manager. That helps reduce the cost of establishing the new position; in fact, the county didn’t budget any new funds for the position.

Coleman said it’s high time Guilford County took some real action to address the situation of the dismally poor MWBE numbers it has been putting up in recent years. She said it’s been very frustrating to come to meetings and hear staff say over and over again that one contract after another was going to the usual suspects.

Some people say one reason former Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece resigned in May was because he was tired of getting publically raked over the coals by Coleman every time he brought a contract to the board for approval.

At the June 21 meeting, Alston made the motion to establish the new position and it passed with no discussion – however, there was a whole lot of discussion about it on Wednesday, June 20 and Thursday, June 21 before the meeting.

One very interesting fact is that creating an MWBE director position has been tried before in Guilford County. About a decade ago, also largely at the behest of Coleman and Alston, the Democratic-majority Board of Commissioners created an MWBE director position and hired a director, but that move did nothing to improve MWBE participation in the following years. Eventually, Guilford County cut the job from Guilford County government.

When Coleman was asked this week why this time around would be any different, she said the reason it didn’t work before was that the county didn’t have the right person in the job. She said the new director position can really make a difference if the county hires the right director.

Alston said the same thing: This time the county will fill the position with a highly qualified director who can make a substantial change in the county’s MWBE numbers.

“I think we’ve got to get someone in there who knows their business and has a proven track record,” Alston said. “Before, I think we just got a black face in there – not that the new director has to be black. The director can be white or black if he or she can do the job.”

Alston said he’s intimately aware of the law in the State of North Carolina that requires the county to go with the lowest responsible bidder, but he said there are all sorts of strategies that can get those numbers up. Contracts under $30,000 don’t need to be bid and the county can break up larger contracts into smaller ones to use as many MWBE subcontractors as possible. According to Alston, some minority businesses are at a disadvantage when it comes to large contracts because they tend to be smaller and it may be harder for them to get large bonds or major insurance policies required for some big county projects.

“It’s a challenge but it can be done,” Alston said of renewed effort to increase MWBE participation.

He also said that sometimes general contractors take advantage of MWBE’s by squeezing them on price to the point where they don’t make enough to turn a profit. He said the new director can help guard against those practices as well.

The move ends about a year of debate over the issue.

In 2017, the county – led by Commissioners Coleman, Alston and Carlvena Foster, 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 that time, the board had a lengthy discussion on ways to increase MWBE numbers and staff was charged with taking actions to achieve that goal.

Then, in early May, the board heard an extremely disappointing MWBE report from the Guilford County Purchasing Department. Even white females, a group that traditionally does relatively well in county contracts, only got 5 percent of the county’s business during the first three quarters of fiscal 2017-2018.

In that report, in the category of “Construction and Repairs,” zero 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.

Soon after the report was presented, Alston began calling for Guilford County to hire a full-time MWBE director – something Coleman has been doing for years.

MWBE participation is a particularly hot-button issue in Guilford County government these days, since the county currently has some major construction and renovation projects in the works and tens of millions of dollars will be spent on construction over the next two years. Guilford County is building a new Animal Shelter and a new Emergency Services vehicle maintenance and repair facility as well as making major renovations to the old jail in downtown Greensboro.