Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bill pushes minority contracts for Metro

By JANELL ROSS • Staff Writer (Tennessean) • February 24, 2008 Mayor Karl Dean and at least two members of the Metro Council think they have the solution to a problem that has vexed Metro government for decades: Local women- and minority-owned business owners are awarded a paltry share of public contracts. Legislation filed Friday with the Metro Council would overhaul the way companies compete for Metro contracts and the way they are awarded. The 18-page bill is the work of Metro's legal department and a consultant who studied Nashville's business environment for the past three years. The bill was sponsored by District 32 Councilman Sam Coleman and Councilwoman Megan Barry, who serves at-large, and is supported by Mayor Karl Dean. The first of three votes will be at the March 4 council meeting. "It gives us more of a chance than we had before," Coleman said. Between 1999 and 2003, Metro government's major agencies — city government, the airport, transit and housing authorities, schools and Nashville Electric Service — collectively awarded all but 7.62 percent of their construction work to companies owned by white men, according to a separate study released last summer. White, male-owned companies were also awarded all but 5.3 percent of the agencies' professional services contracts, and all but 9.54 percent of goods and services work. Dean made the issue of women- and minority-owned business participation part of his campaign. During his first 100 days in office, he appointed a committee to suggest changes in the way Metro does business with private companies. He also moved the director of Metro's Disadvantaged, Minority and Small Business Assistance program into the mayor's office as a special assistant. "Nashville is a diverse city," Dean said in a statement Friday. "We need to do everything we can to make sure this diversity is reflected in the way our city government does business. It's good for our economy, and it's just the right thing to do." The bill filed Friday calls for a new oversight office that will evaluate bids and proposals the purchasing committee deems best for compliance with Metro's nondiscrimination practices. The office will verify that contractors made an effort to subcontract or work with female- or minority-owned businesses and that the agreements between contractors and subcontractors are legitimate. Businesses that violate the city's requirements when submitting bids can be temporarily suspended or barred for an unspecified period from vying for Metro work. The bill will also establish annual benchmarks for participation by women and minorities. They are not quotas or goals and will not inform how contracts should be awarded, said Janel Lacy, Dean's press secretary. Darek Bell, owner of Bell and Associates Construction Co. Inc. and vice president of Ray Bell Construction Co. Inc., said he's used to the requirements in the bill from working in Atlanta, Birmingham and Knoxville, where they already exist. "It's kind of surprising that it has taken Nashville this long," said Bell, who also sits on the advisory committee formed by Dean. "… If you look at the cities where these kinds of measures are already in place, they have a much stronger DBE (disadvantaged business enterprise) contractor community. It seems to make a difference. And I think it's pretty clear Nashville has some work to do." At this point, the bills' approval is not a given. "It's an issue that merits discussion," said at-large Councilman Charlie Tygard. "But with the financial condition of this city, I am not willing to pay any premium for goods and services or adhere to any type of quota. … And what I will really be looking at is the cost." The Finance Department is working to determine the finical impact of the proposal, said Lacy.

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