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“Disappointing.” Study finds racial disparity in St. Petersburg business contracts

Disparity was found at both prime and subcontract levels. Non-minority males overwhelmingly received more business and the biggest contracts.
People listen while several organizers speak outside St. Petersburg City Hall ahead of a march in solidarity against racism and police brutality on Friday, April 16, 2021. About a hundred gathered in the name of Black people killed after encounters with police.
People listen while several organizers speak outside St. Petersburg City Hall ahead of a march in solidarity against racism and police brutality on Friday, April 16, 2021. About a hundred gathered in the name of Black people killed after encounters with police. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 24

ST. PETERSBURG — City Council Chair Ed Montanari said it was like getting a report card with a big red “F” on it.

On Thursday, St. Petersburg City Council reviewed the results of a disparity study it commissioned back in 2018. The council wanted to know how much business the city gives to minority- and women-owned firms.

Mason Tillman Associates out of Oakland, Calif. was awarded the study. It analyzed the city’s prime contracts and subcontracts over a three-year period in construction, professional services, including architecture and engineering, and goods and services, to see if the proportion of contract dollars awarded to minority and women-owned businesses was relatively close to the proportion of those businesses in the area.

The study found disparities almost entirely across the board, across every demographic in race and gender, in each industry reviewed, and at prime and subcontractor levels. Non-minority males were awarded the biggest projects and got the most business.

“It was disappointing, to say the least,” Montanari said.

Council member Darden Rice said the city should work to remove barriers for minority businesses, adding it could work with St. Petersburg College and Pinellas Technical College St. Petersburg to get minority contractors in the workforce. She also recommended that Small Business Liaison Jessica Eilerman’s department be expanded.

Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman brought up how she gets constant calls from city employees alleging racism and mistreatment. She told the Times they call her because they’re too afraid of the administration.

“We’re responsible. We’re held accountable. So to me, a part of me feels like I failed the employees,” Wheeler-Bowman said. “To see those numbers and to act like we’re OK with that, it’s a problem to me.”

Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she wasn’t surprised by the results. She said the city must find out why minority business owners never make it past the procurement process.

“The disparity study is now in our face,” she said. “We can’t deny it. We can’t kick the can down the road. Whatever it is that we need to address that, I’m all in. let’s do it.”

Vice Chair Gina Driscoll motioned to accept the results of the study. She said she too wanted to fund the recommendations and allow members to give in their own input.

“We’ve got to make sure our own house is in order and doing it right too and I look forward to conversations about that as well,” Driscoll said.

One of the solutions being considered was next on the agenda: Creating a second location in south St. Petersburg for the Greenhouse, billed as a one-stop facility to assist with the growth of small businesses. Driscoll said she hoped that would be included on the city’s list of recommendations.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said the city has identified dollars to be spent on solutions, including staffing, which may also require a consultant. She said the council members will see it “right at the top of that list” when they discuss the 2023 budget in January.

The city plans on coming back to council twice to talk about engagement, benchmark and operational planning by February 2022 and implement a final plan by that March.