The city of Durham and Durham County have longstanding policies to encourage contracting with minority- and women-owned businesses, but those policies aren’t working very well.
While such companies are regularly hired as subcontractors in some fields, they are “underutilized” in others, and significantly underutilized as prime contractors for construction, architecture and engineering, and purveyors of services and goods, according to a Disparity Study ( nando.com/disparity) jointly commissioned by the two local governments.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” City Manager Tom Bonfield said.
The city and county paid the Atlanta law firm Griffin & Strong $150,000 each to look at contracts from 2007-12 and at firms qualified for goods and services in the regions where the city and county do their business.
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The firm will present its results at Thursday’s City Council work session.
County commissioners heard the presentation earlier in February, Chairman Michael Page said.
“We have some work to do,” Page said. “This is something we’ve been dealing with for a long time and we need to try to address how we can improve.”
The study found that of the $206.1 million the city spent in the five-year study period, only $5.5 million, or 2.66 percent, went to minority- or women-owned prime contractors. Of the county’s $313.6 million, $19 million, or 6.07 percent, went to such firms.
City Council member Steve Schewel, who frequently raises questions about gender and racial equity when contracts come up for council approval, said that finding was “dismaying.”
“When we do large contracts, it’s often said there’s not a qualified minority firm that can do the work,” Schewel said. “The people who did this study felt that there are in our region enough contractors and providers large enough to carry the weight of our large contracts."
Among other things, Griffin & Strong recommended revising policies and oversight and creating steering committees in each government to monitor contracting practices.
The study also noted that both programs focus exclusively on black and female contractors, leading to the underuse of Hispanic-, Asian-American- and American Indian-owned companies.
“Based on the information and recommendations, we’re going to go back and rewrite our disparity ordinance, as well as the policies and practices,” Bonfield said. In a memo to council members, he proposes to have an “implementation strategy” ready for council review in September.
“That’s our goal, and there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “Obviously (with) some public comment and participation as well. There’s some legal considerations, too.”