A mere 2.6 percent of city expenditures for supplies, construction projects, professional services, equipment and other goods and services went to minority-certified businesses during the last fiscal year, Asheville Council members learned at their Aug. 17 work session. And only 1 percent of corresponding Buncombe County expenditures were paid to minority firms. “That seems like a small percentage to me,” remarked Council member Earl Cobb.
“It is,” replied Mamie Scott, director of the Asheville-Buncombe Office of Minority Affairs. But, she explained, those raw numbers don’t tell the whole story: For construction projects, less than 30 percent of the minority firms contacted about potential city contracts responded by submitting a bid, she reported. And in professional services, supplies and other contract categories, the numbers are even lower. “We’re bugged daily by this [problem]. Recruiting [minority businesses] is an area that needs some work, [and] we would solicit you all to help us with that,” Scott urged. “It is imperative that we all take responsibility.”
Council member Barbara Field appeared to question the numbers Scott presented in the Minority Business Program Annual Report, remarking that the estimated $44 million in total city expenditures seemed high to her (the total city budget is $58 million).
But city Finance Director Bill Schaefer stood by that figure, explaining that it is based on cash expenditures and includes the Water Resources Department, the Civic Center and other entities that bring the overall city budget closer to $80 million.
A still-skeptical Field asked staff to provide her with a breakdown of those figures, questioning whether the city had spent $44 million on construction, procurement and professional services during fiscal year 1998-99. She also asked Scott if her staff — which serves both Asheville and Buncombe — is doing enough to educate minority firms and, if need be, “hand-hold” them through their initial bid attempts. “We’d have more people bidding [on jobs] if they weren’t so hesitant about the process,” Field reflected.
Scott said her staff already does a lot of that, offering biannual training sessions on how to do business with the city and county, setting up workshops about small-business loans, and holding roundtable discussions. “What you can do is [encourage] minority businesses to call us … and see what’s going on,” she suggested.
Minority Business Commission member Vickie Gaddy agreed: “Ninety percent of these [minority businesses] are being asked to bid, [but] they’re not doing it.” Gaddy, who runs her own pest-control firm, said she found that registering as a minority-certified business got her foot in the door with the city and the county. “It’s built my business,” she affirmed. City staff will and do call minority firms and let them know about upcoming jobs, projects and purchases connected with city and county government.
Vice Mayor Ed Hay posed a question that got no immediate answer: “If these folks are not bidding, why are they not bidding, and what can we do about it?”
Council members took no formal action on the report.
County zoning, city issue
This fall, Buncombe County residents will get to vote on whether the commissioners should implement countywide zoning. And Asheville City Council member Earl Cobb pointed out that, since city residents will be affected by the outcome, they should get out and vote. He asked Council members how they’d like to address the question.
Council member Barbara Field suggested getting county staff to present commissioners’ proposal at an upcoming work session.
Council member Chuck Cloninger agreed, saying, “City residents … do have a stake in the outcome.”
There may be doubt about the outcome, but Council members indicated that they will approve a request for proposals to run the city’s new public-access channel. The RFP invites local nonprofit organizations to submit bids for running the new cable-television channel,although some public-access-channel advocates maintain that no existing local organization is equipped to handle the task.
“I’m not sure what the alternative would be,” noted Vice Mayor Hay, when Council discussed the RFP at its Aug. 17 work session.
Asheville Assistant Attorney Patsy Meldrum reminded Council members that options they’ve considered in the past year include creating and appointing a special commission to run the channel, hiring city staff (and purchasing equipment) to run it, and creating a new city-sponsored, nonprofit organization to do so.
By consensus, Council directed staff to stick with the current option — soliciting existing nonprofits to bid on the job, and creating a public-access commission to oversee it. The RFPs will officially go out on Aug. 29, city staff noted. The deadline for submitting proposals is Oct. 1, although Council will probably approve an ordinance amendment setting up a public-access commission, sooner than that.