County nears 'closure' on small business discussion

ALBANY -- After more than eight months of discussions, the Dougherty County Commission may be nearing an end to the discussion that has held up two major construction projects.

Acting on a recommendation from a consultant hired to conduct a disparity study several years ago, the county is revamping what was formerly known as its Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business into one that focuses on small businesses with policies that are race and gender neutral.

Once a consortium that included the Dougherty County School System, the city of Albany, Dougherty County and the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission, the governments developing their own respective programs.

For more than eight months the County Commission, County Administrator Richard Crowdis and Small Business Development Director Pinky Modeste have been developing the foundation of the program, hammering out issues and bringing items before the commission for discussion.

On Monday, Modeste offered what may be the final draft proposal for the office.

In general, the mission of the office is to give local small business owners a leg up by providing a sheltered market -- in some circumstances -- and increased access to the county's bidding procedures in exchange for becoming what the county terms a "certified" small business.

That certification process requires business owners to disclose certain financial information, such as personal net worth and total net worth of the company, and be located within a 29-county area of Southwest Georgia.

At issue Monday was whether the office would focus on helping businesses start up or whether it would help give existing small businesses who fit the criteria an edge against some of the larger, more established companies in the bidding process and the steps the office would take in those circumstances.

The bidding process encompasses two facets in the county -- construction and procurement.

Procurement vastly outnumbers construction projects -- the county only has two construction projects this year versus around more than roughly 9,000 annual purchase orders.

While the new policy can't legally acknowledge race- or gender-conscious programs, the belief is that minority-owned businesses could be the biggest beneficiaries of the program given the number of those businesses that would qualify as small businesses under the program.

But given that consultants hired to do the disparity study said that there was only 19 percent participation by minority-owned businesses, there is a question whether the program will have much impact at all in growing minority-owned businesses.

"I don't think the first year or two will be that drastic because of the level of availability of vendors for what the county spends money on," Modeste said.

To qualify for the sheltered market, each project or item would have to have at least three certified small businesses bid in order for the sheltered market to take effect, Modeste said. In many circumstances there aren't enough participating bidders that qualify.

Commissioner Gloria Gaines has repeatedly voiced her concern over what she called the "dismal" amount of participation of minority-owned businesses and reiterated her position Monday.

"What I would like to see is some way to track the participation by race and gender," Gaines said. "What we don't want to see a year or two into this is that those numbers continue to diminish."

Another issue that prompted discussion among the commissioners was the availability of financing for subcontractors. Many are eliminated, Modeste contends, because general contractors require bonds of their subs, which are hard for newly-formed small businesses to qualify for.

Chairman Jeff Sinyard, a small business owner, said he had some concerns about the availability of what he always referred to as startup money, and asked if there were any other sources of money -- financing or grants -- that could be used rather than taxpayer money.

"Is there something out there for venture capital besides using taxpayer money?" Sinyard asked. "I know the situation with the banks is tight right now, but there has to be some other options out there."

Commissioner John Hayes, who works for a local bank, said that he's sympathetic to the plight of those small business owners, saying that it was "unfortunate that we have to legislate" the bidding process to ensure its fairness, but that there are financial resources available for business owners.

"There are sufficient resources in this community to meet their needs. Granted, it's harder to get, but the money is there," Hayes said.

William Wright, a representative of the local NAACP chapter, has vocally challenged the measure throughout the process, arguing that it was based on a disparity study that used flawed data, asked commissioners Monday to reconsider the whole effort.

"We don't want anything else to come forward about small business because the program is obviously not working," he said. "We need to work on a program to deal with the attributes that describe our community. We don't need to reinvent the wheel."

Crowdis urged the commission Monday to take a vote on the measure within the next two weeks so that the bidding process can begin on the planned EMS and Public Works buildings -- projects that have been halted until the SBD office could be set up.

"At some point we need closure on this issue," he said. "My request is that we have a special called meeting after the work session or (vote on it) during a regular meeting to bring this to a close."