(Part III of a TSD series exploring the behind-the-scenes work of building the city's minority- and women-owned business enterprise sector.)
The City of Memphis Office of Contract Compliance stands like a watchtower over the process designed to improve the city's spending effort with minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs).
Compliance Officer Mary Bright served as guide as The New Tri-State Defender pursued a broader understanding of the office's intricacy and the workload.
But first, this question: "Why is the office needed?"
In 1996, the Memphis/Shelby County Intergovernmental Consortium (city and county governments, Memphis Area Transit Authority, Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division and others) adopted a Disparity Study conducted by D.J. Miller & Associates. Over 14 months, the firm analyzed the city's effectiveness in providing business opportunities for minority- and women-owned firms. It was updated in 2010.
In October 2010, the Memphis City Council passed on final reading City Ordinance #5384, which created the Equal Business Opportunity (EBO) Program. Bright describes the EBO Program as, "a race and gender based program that is intended to provide opportunity within local, governmental contracting for a demographic that has historically been discriminated against and left out of that process. It has allowed many MWBE subcontractors to build capacity so that he/she is able to bid on contracts as a prime (contractor)."
The eligible MWBE's main office must be based within Shelby, Desoto, Marshall, Tate, Tunica, Crittenden, Fayette and Tipton counties – the Memphis Statistical Area.
The EBO Program is paired with the Small Business Enterprise (SBE) Program, which, according to Bright, "has a goal of awarding at least 25% of the city contracting and purchase order dollars to small business located within the City of Memphis. It is a race and gender neutral program for prime (main) contractors."
An SBE eligible firm must have its principal office located in Memphis, and must be owned by a resident of Shelby, Desoto, Marshall, Tate, Tunica, Crittenden, Fayette or Tipton counties.
The Compliance Office then goes into action to discuss current contract and bid orders from the various city divisions to see if there are possible dollars to be had for qualified MWBE and local firms.
It's a labor-intensive task covering the city's varied needs – as far ranging as truckloads of office supplies to replacing fleets of cars.
"We have to work with each division every month to compile their expenditure requests," Bright explained. "We evaluate the scope of services needed for a project. Then we compare that scope of services needed with the list of the city's verified MWBE list to see if there are firms potentially eligible to provide services for that particular project."
Based on the availability of MWBEs, a goal is then established for that project, Bright said.
"Once the contract is awarded to the prime contractor we make sure that the MWBE they want to use is actually a certified firm."
It's very time consuming, said Bright, "because you want to make sure that you are pinpoint accurate with your reports."
Certification is crucial.
"You can't take it for granted that the business is structured as it's reported. You may have a minority male listed as the owner of the business, but have a majority owner that actually owns the larger share. Certification assures that the businesses are structured properly."
After assuring that the city's divisions have properly tried to insert MWBEs into the funding stream, more diligence is necessary to assure that the MWBEs that may have gained work from the process are the ones on the job.
"We actually go out in to the field to verify who is on the job and what they are doing," Bright assures.
Much is at stake.
"(Very often) other compliance agencies throughout the nation may view our reports and we study theirs," said Bright. "We regularly study each other's work to see what other areas are doing. It helps us all to be better."