On Monday, Shelby County amended and prepared to relaunch its program to support minority- and women-owned businesses in a deal with the government, bringing back a program suspended in November 2020.
The county suspended the program after being sued by a group of contractors who claimed it discriminated against white-owned businesses.
Now, armed with data showing the county has a legal basis to prioritize businesses that are 51 percent minority- or women-owned, the program is poised to return so the county can commit to “using its spending power in a manner that promotes a robust and inclusive economy that fully utilizes all segments of its business population, regardless of race or gender,” said the resolution approved Monday.
“This will be a very important step in restarting this program,” said Commissioner Van Turner, one of the sponsors of the ordinance. “I think that’s something that all the commissioners want to see again, so we’re happy to work together to make that happen.” I think the public will be very happy with what we are doing. We’re more specific with this program and we’re more closely aligned with what they’re doing in the state and the city, so I think there’s going to be additional support for the success of this program.”
Commissioners approved the third and final reading of the ordinance to amend their program policies unanimously.
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The Office of Equal Opportunity Compliance is now tasked with adopting rules and procedures to implement the program, creating and disseminating a directory of certified minority- and women-owned businesses, ensuring that bids and proposals adhere to public procurement procedures procurement and oversee all major contracts with minority- and women-owned business targets.
It also must now submit an annual report on the use of minority- and women-owned businesses to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.
A primary goal of the program is to increase the dollar amount and percentage of supplies and services the county procures from minority- and women-owned businesses, aligning them more closely with the availability of those businesses in the area, according to documents approved on Monday .
The ordinance was also updated from a previous reading to specify that disadvantaged groups include persons with disabilities and disabled veterans.
“We want to make sure that those who have served our country also have the opportunity to grow their businesses in the county as well,” Turner said.
Participants enrolled in the program must be certified by the Equal Opportunity Compliance Office.
In June, consultants from Griffin & Strong PC presented the results of a 2022 variance study to the Shelby County Commission. The study showed that black American businesses were underutilized in Shelby County’s prime government contracts in all five categories considered: construction, emergency care, professional services, other services and goods. It also found that Asian Americans, Native Americans and non-minority women were also underutilized in premium contracts in several categories.
And the study found evidence of differences by race, ethnicity or gender status of firm owners “even after controlling for capacity and other race- and gender-neutral factors.”
The study covers a five-year period from 2016-2020.
Shelby County previously had a program aimed at increasing spending on minority- and women-owned businesses that ran from fiscal years 2017-2021. It was abruptly halted in November 2020 after Shelby County settled with a group of contractors who sued the county, arguing that their program discriminated against white-owned businesses.
To justify a race- or sex-based program, courts have said the government must show that it “has a compelling interest in ‘redressing the effects of past or present racial discrimination.’ And they must prove that “compelling interest” with actual findings of discrimination, something the county hired Griffin & Strong to find.
Catherine Burgess covers county government and religion. You can reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @kathsburgess.