Durham County

Durham to have equity recommendations this fall

By September, the city’s Equal Opportunity/Equity Assurance office will have a plan to revamp Durham’s program to make sure minority- and women-owned firms get a fair shake in city contracting.

“That may be a little bit aggressive (deadline), but we want you to know we are committed to making things better,” the office’s director, Deborah Giles, told the City Council on Thursday.

Council members had just heard a counsultant’s report (nando.com/disparity) that “minority- and women-owned business enterprises” (MWBEs) are “underutilized” as prime contractors for construction, architectural and engineering, services and goods, despite policies in place since 2003.

The study, by the Atlanta law firm Griffin & Strong, found a similar situation with Durham County’s contracting. The city and county jointly hired the firm to do the study, at a cost of $150,000 each. Firm partner Rodney Strong presented the study at the council’s work session.

The study found that, of the $206.1 million the city spent in the five-year study period, 2007-12, only $5.5 million, or 2.66 percent, went to minority- or women-owned prime contractors.

“As you can see, the numbers are pretty low,” he said.

The county’s record was somewhat better with subcontractors, but the study concluded that disparities “can reasonably be explained by race, ethnicity and gender.” The conclusion was based on a combination of statistical and anecdotal evidence, Strong said.

“When you control for (all other factors), race and gender are what we’re talking about,” he said.

Griffin & Strong recommended the city form a steering committee to monitor contracting practices, and require performance reports on carrying out contracting policies. It also suggested breaking large contracts into several components, opening more opportunities for small firms, and encouraging partnerships on large contracts between MWBEs and “nonminority” firms.

“There are a number of options you have to strengthen your existing program,” Strong said, mentioning the federal Small Business Administration’s programs to increase companies’ bonding capacity to allow them to handle larger jobs.

“You have to decide what works best for you,” he said.

Giles said she is already looking at equity-assurance programs and policies nationwide to get ideas for revising what Durham does, “utilizing the broadest brush of resources” to “build in a culture” throughout the city administration that assures equal opportunity.

Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden said the city staff should have racial-equity training.

“There are people who have biases who need to go through brain changing,” Cole-McFadden said. “If they don’t, they will keep feeding into this pattern of discrimination.”

She told Strong that she appreciated his information, but, “unfortunately, it’s not new. Unless we act on it, it’s going to continue,” she said.

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