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Tampa City Council looks to boost city contracts with minority firms

TAMPA — The City Council wants to look to cities like Atlanta and Denver for ideas on improving Tampa's program to steer city contracts toward companies owned by women and minorities.

This month's council vote to explore those ideas follows a series of discussions between the council and the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that focuses on economic development, political engagement and youth education.

"Our goal with you is to find a path for the city of Tampa to significantly increase the spending with minority business enterprises," said James Ransom, who chairs TOBA's economic development committee. "There's an abysmal amount of spending."

"Disgraceful," said council member Frank Reddick, who made a motion Nov. 17 to schedule a meeting between him, the city's legal staff and TOBA to work on proposals to amend the program. "We have an opportunity now to improve this."

Mayor Bob Buckhorn's staff says it welcomes changes that would increase participation by or outreach to women- and minority-owned companies. But administration officials say the numbers TOBA is focusing on don't give an accurate picture of how the program performs.

The idea that the city's minority contracting program is "woefully inadequate ... couldn't be further from the truth," says city chief of staff Dennis Rogero. To the contrary, officials say, the program has met bigger percentages of its goals every year for the last four years, and exceeded those goals in the last two.

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Critics focus on city records showing that from 2011 to 2015, the city paid a total $288.5 million on competitively awarded contracts for construction, professional services, goods and other services.

Of that, $5.6 million — or 2 percent — went to black-owned general contractors or subcontractors.

About 9.2 percent went to companies certified as having owners who were women, black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American.

The rest, nearly 91 percent, was paid to companies not certified to participate in the program. Presumably, a lot, if not most, of those were non-minority firms owned and run by white men.

In a city that's about 26 percent black, critics say that's not good enough.

Raising the spectre of bad publicity, Ransom suggested to the City Council that a failure to be "smart about making sure prosperity is shared and it's balanced and there's fairness and there's equity" could hurt Tampa's efforts to attract corporate relocations, draw visitors and host conventions.

He recalled that Tampa's reputation was bruised when the then-all-white Ye Mystic Krewe canceled its annual Gasparilla celebration and parade in 1991 rather than integrate under pressure from the NFL, which worried that the club's exclusionary practices would taint that year's Super Bowl.

Encouraging council members to "go back and study that history," Ransom said the story then was that "certain people were not smart enough to see that equity and fairness and diversity were very important and were good business."

"You put people in a very difficult situation if you don't get some kind of push forward, instead of a push back," he told the council. "Let's keep moving forward and make sure we get something done."

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In response, city officials say talking about 2 percent of all contracts is an effective sound bite, but misleading.

They contend their program for women- and minority-owned businesses performs better than critics suggest but also is more complex.

For one thing, city officials said, it makes more sense to look at companies that have signed up to participate in and become certified for Tampa's women and minority business development program. That's because those certified companies better represent what minority bidders are available to compete for which pieces of city business.

Moreover, officials said the city's needs don't always match up with available certified bidders — especially as apartment construction booms and work begins on two different billion-dollar projects at Tampa International Airport and the downtown property owned by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment.

"We may have $10 million worth of drywall contracts available, but if through our outreach and certification, all we can identify are minority-owned plumbing vendors, we're caught between a rock and a hard place," Rogero said. "We obviously can't award a drywall contract to a plumbing vendor."

Based on what companies are available in what trades and specialties, the city sets its participation goals on a project-by-project basis.

By those measures, "we're proud of our product," Rogero said. During 2015, contracts awarded to women and minority subcontractors not only met all of the goals set by the city in those areas, but exceeded them by another 20 percent.

Black businesses were paid 2 percent of all city contracts from 2011 to 2015 but received nearly 26 percent of the payments made through the women and minority business program.

City officials said they try to see that certified companies have a shot at city contracts in a couple of ways.

General contractors bidding on projects are required to show that they've solicited bids from certified minority subcontractors and to provide a breakdown of which firms they plan to use and how much business those companies will get.

For contracts of $20,000 to $300,000, the city seeks to make that business a "sheltered market" — also known as a set-aside — for which only certified women and minority firms can bid.

What the city can't do, officials said, and what U.S. Supreme Court rulings prohibit it from doing, is base its goals on the makeup of its population, anecdotal evidence or general perception.

"It has to be based on empirical data within your marketplace," said Gregory Hart, manager of Tampa's minority and small business development program. So in 2007, the city did a study that looked at the availability of vendors and disparities in the local economy.

Still, council members have discussed importing methods from other cities in an effort to improve Tampa's program.

One place they're looking is Atlanta, which set a goal of 31 percent for using women- and minority-owned contractors to design and build a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons.

Another is Denver's program, which Rogero and Hart said might not be as good as Tampa's in some respects. For example, Denver charges companies a fee of up to $300 to be certified; Tampa does not charge a fee. Denver's program also kicks in on city contracts worth $1 million or more. Tampa's starts at $50,000 or more.

"Certainly nothing's perfect," Rogero said, but the city would "grab anything that would improve participation and outreach. It seems, however, that much of the dialogue has been in areas where we are simply unable to pursue that. Basing (goals) on the quota system or overall population is not helpful to us because we can't do it."

Contact Richard Danielson at (813) 226-3403 or rdanielson@tampabay.com. Follow @Danielson_Times.

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