City Ends Race Gender Project Goals

July 18, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Despite a construction boom that has lasted nearly seven years here, there are fewer minority- and women-owned contract-ing firms in business today than when the surge started.

A lack of work, an inability to be bonded, and an incapability to get insurance are a few of the reasons why some packed up their tools. And because their numbers are smaller, the city adjusted a goal in its policy on public building projects, known as the Minority and Women Business Enter-prise program, or MWBE.

Instead of white contractors having to award 11 percent of a job to minority firms and 1 percent to female-owned companies in their bid applications, a good-faith effort now has to award 9 percent to minorities. Under the revision, 1 percent should still go to women.

The change was made to better reflect the share that minorities and women hold in the local construction industry, a grip that has slipped a bit since 1996. Yet, those numbers will go away soon and the city’s Equal Opportunity Department is keeping its collective fingers crossed that the digits will never have to be brought back.

There isn’t a guarantee that won’t happen, though, because history shows that the city’s new mission — to eliminate racial disparity in the field without using a mandate — may be a tough one to fill.

“How do we get people to do more because they want to and appreciate the diversity that it brings to the picture and make sure that city construction dollars are really spent with those that reflect our community and our tax base?” said Ingrid Scott-Weekley, equal opportunity department director, of what the city wants to accomplish.

The city found that racial disparity existed in the local construction industry back in 1990 when a study the city funded showed that white contractors weren’t hiring minorities as sub-contractors on public projects, a finding that led city commissioners to initiate a local MWBE policy. A previous one had its roots in a national policy but the courts struck it down in 1989.

In 1999, the city did another disparity study that provided a similar conclusion — but a different result.

“That study found that, although there was disparity in the availability and utilization of minority and women contractors in our construction industry, it didn’t meet the legal standard of the court,” said Scott-Weekley.

“What that finding meant is that we have to phase out our race-conscious program and replace it with a race-neutral program,” she added.

The new program, free of race and gender requirements, begins on Jan. 1 and will be tested for the entire year. The current program, which has existed in some form or another for 20 years, will fade into the sunset by Dec. 31 along with any clout the city may have had. When it does set, the scenery surrounding public building projects should change. But what that change will look like without the numbers is anyone’s guess.

“The contractors have viewed the goals as the ceiling, instead of the floor. As soon as they reach that goal, they cut off any MWBE participation regardless of whether there is opportunity to continue or not,” said Scott-Weekley.

“We knew that the goal program was successful, but only to the point that we mandated the goal.”

Scott-Weekley believes the race- and gender-neutral program has the makings to give minorities and women more opportunities for work than the MWBE policy did. But she acknowledged that the jury would be out, for up to a year, on whether it actually will.

What concerns her is that the first time the city suspended its program in 1989 — when the courts voided the federal policy — participation for minorities and women fell from 13 percent to 2 percent when white contractors didn’t have a goal to follow.

She said what the city learned from that episode was construction managers won’t make an effort to hire minorities and women without some sort of a directive attached to the bid process. But with any luck, she said, the outcome will be different now than it was in 1989.

“I think the thing we have done differently this time is that we really have facilitated the establishment of good relationships between minority, non-minority and women contractors. We have a core group that meets every month. We have urged networking and joint ventures. We’ve worked together on all the policy revisions,” said Scott-Weekley.

But she knows that majority contractors have asked for the goals to be removed, while minorities and women have told her that if the goals are removed, they won’t have any work. To back their point, they said to look at the local private sector projects, where they said they almost never get hired.

The new program is a gamble. Still, Scott-Weekley chooses to remain optimistic that minorities and women will find work because white contractors will do the right thing.

“Everybody wants to see this work. I think the white contractors want to disprove that (they won’t hire minorities and women). And of course, the minority contractors want to do everything they can to strengthen those relationships so they can be used,” she said. “So I think there is more of a stake in what we are trying to do now and hopefully the results will be different.”           

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