Few county firms participating in minority business program

Friday, Nov. 30, 2007

After a little less than two years running, the results of Charles County’s program to encourage minority-owned businesses to apply for county contracts are ‘‘kind of a mixed bag,” as one official put it.

Briefing the county commissioners on the Minority Business Enterprise program Tuesday, Tom Kelly, chief of the county’s purchasing division, said the number of county contracts awarded to minority firms rose from 29 percent in fiscal 2006 to 36 percent in fiscal 2007. The percentage of county contract money going to minority firms plummeted from 57 percent to 11 percent.

However, local participation in the program has been minimal, he said.

Only 3 percent of the contracts awarded to minority-owned firms in fiscal 2007 went to Charles County companies. Prince George’s County companies won 67 percent, Calvert County won 8 percent and Virginia won 5 percent. The remaining 17 percent went to other jurisdictions.

‘‘Overall, for the first couple of years, we’ve been pretty successful,” Kelly said. ‘‘Obviously, we’d like to see some more local participation. ... I think those numbers will get better in years to come.”

Kelly noted the percentages did not include minority participation figures for the Regency Furniture Stadium project in Waldorf, but said that the Maryland Stadium Authority estimates that the project will see 20 to 25 percent minority participation.

Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) noted the county’s MBE program was established by a resolution in 2005. He asked if enacting legislation to codify the program would make a difference in the numbers.

‘‘Unless you had mandated goals, I really don’t know that it would make a difference,” Kelly replied.

‘‘It’s a fine line between setting goals and what are so-called set-asides,” Collins observed.

County Attorney Roger Fink later confirmed that the Supreme Court has struck down programs that reserve a certain amount of public contracts for minority firms.

‘‘I’m real concerned that only 3 percent are from Charles County,” said Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D). ‘‘We’re being questioned by our citizens as to whether we have a substantial program.”

Patterson was referring to a legislative proposal sponsored by the Black Caucus of Charles County this month that called for strengthening the MBE program and making it easier for firms to find program materials and contract listings on the county’s Web site.

‘‘We really have got a challenge here,” said Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D), noting he was disappointed in the fiscal 2007 participation. ‘‘If the lion’s share of that participation goes to Prince George’s County companies ... I would like to see Charles County companies play a bigger role. ... We want to help them compete more effectively for these opportunities.”

Commissioners’ President F. Wayne Cooper (D) called for the commissioners to ‘‘take this a step further” and enact legislation that would require any local agency taking money from the county, including the school board, to participate in the MBE program. Cooper also said the county should determine if local firms are capable of winning county contracts.

‘‘Do we have minority firms in the areas we’re looking for?” Cooper asked.

Hodge suggested the county form a committee, along with the College of Southern Maryland, the school board and Civista Medical Center to develop a plan to attain MBE goals.

Later, Patterson suggested that the commissioners add Rebecca Bridgett, director of Charles County Social Services, to the panel.

The social services department claimed a minority business participation rate of 29 percent for fiscal 2007, above the state goal of 25 percent.

The commissioners also plan to include Minority Business Advisory Council member Mike Moses on the new committee to bring a business perspective.

Moses said Thursday that the new committee was a step in the right direction.

‘‘I felt real positive,” Moses said. ‘‘I think a whole lot is going to get done.”

Moses said that the county has many minority-owned businesses that could compete for county contracts if they could get some assistance in working through the mound of paperwork needed to attain MBE status.

‘‘They’re right on the borderline,” Moses said.

E-mail Jay Friess at jfriess@somdnews.com.