More than 92 percent of contracts go to White women
To receive federal money, each state’s transportation departments must set a statewide three-year goal for small businesses owned by Blacks, other people of color, and women on federal-funded transportation projects. However, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) announced last month that it fell three percent short of its 10 percent Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) participation goal for the 2015 federal fiscal year that ended last September.
“Our goal is to exceed the target goal,” explained Kim Collins, MnDOT’s civil rights director, in an MSR phone interview. Her office runs the DBE program, which is “intended to help provide contracting opportunities for small businesses” owned by Blacks, other people of color, and women.
MnDOT reports that out of $76 million in DBE contracts, $70,775,044 (more than 92 percent) was awarded to non-minority women-owned firms in fiscal year 2014. Hispanic American, Native American, and Asian Pacific American firms all were awarded at least $1 million in contracts. The smallest amounts awarded were to Black American and Subcontinent Asian American firms at $626,813 and $367,411 respectively.
To be a certified DBE, a firm must be 51 percent owned by a “socially and economically disadvantaged individual,” either a woman or a person of color; a U.S. citizen; and have a personal net worth “that does not exceed $1.32 million.” MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle said in a press release that his office “worked hard…to increase the percentage of DBEs working on MnDOT projects.”
Now that the 2016-18 federal DBE goal is 11.7 percent, Collins pointed out that MnDOT must “improve and intensify” its outreach efforts to reach the new goal. Zelle said that “investing resources to find and increase the number of women- and minority-owned businesses certified as DBE” is among several things being considered.
Zelle is “a solid leader” in this regard, said Collins. “Commissioner Zelle has been extremely supportive of our work in this area, and in our commitment to making improvement in the small businesses program, our workforce and our civil rights programs. We are very fortunate to have him.”
Yet, noted Collins, “When we are talking about our outreach activities…to inform businesses that may be eligible to be in our program but not currently certified, there also are some firms that are certified as disadvantaged business enterprises but are not active in seeking [MnDOT] projects.” Collins says that a “meet and greet” event with MnDOT and Metropolitan Council officials and current participating DBEs is being planned for late February or early March.
Collins added that organizations such as the local branch of the National Association of Minority Contractors and the Association of Women Contractors, among others, are expected to be invited as well. “We work to create activities and opportunities to invite firms to participate in our program,” she states.
Asked if MnDOT is working hard enough to bring in more Black DBEs, Collins responded, “Part of the issue is that we don’t have much engagement from Black-owned firms, and the [number of] African American firms that don’t get awarded [contracts] don’t significantly change at all,” Only nine Black businesses got contracts.
“We have too few African American-owned businesses participating or interested in participating in [the DBE program] when we are talking about our outreach activities…to inform businesses that may be eligible to be in our program but not currently certified,” continued Collins. According to the report, the over $70 million in contracts awarded to non-minority women included 302 firms, while the $626,813 awarded to Blacks included nine.
Collins added that she and other MnDOT officials have discussed this with several advisory groups “on why they are not interested or appear that they are not interested, to try and really understand why…and the challenges of bidding on MnDOT work and how to get awarded such work. But the root of the issue is that there are too few [Black] participants” as well as other ethnic groups.
The demand for “more small business courses and one-on-one technical coaching and training” has been heard and is being addressed by her office, said Collins. “We are providing that through our supportive services for small businesses program.
“We all are working to address and identify issues, and will continue to work to better refine our focus,” she pledged. “I think in order for us to be effective, it is not just an external focus [but also] our internal focus to work to identify opportunities for small businesses to be involved in our program, and to even expand that” in other areas, such as state procurement opportunities. “I think it is important for us to internally address some of these questions, and [we’ve] already started some of this dialogue.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.