ALBANY -- After more than nine months of discussions, meetings, negotiations and deliberations, the Dougherty County Commission voted Monday to step away from a program designed to give small businesses an edge in the bidding process and, for the time being, stick to low-bid specifications.
The county has been mulling the creation of a small business development office that would replace the former Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization office, which allowed for goals to promote use of minority-owned businesses in local government contract work but was shut down after a disparity study recommended backing away from race- and gender-conscious programs.
After a contentious discussion Monday during which commissioners ultimately voted three times for various proposals, the body essentially reverted back to its basic bidding policy -- awarding bids based on lowest bid meeting specifications -- by voting 6-1 to go without a small business program.
Commissioner Gloria Gaines said she couldn't support the measure to create the program for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it didn't address what she said was a major local economic issue in the dwindling numbers of minority-owned businesses.
"This office, as it is currently structured, would do nothing to address the plight of the minority business owners who continue to steadily dwindle in number," Gaines said.
Commissioner Muarlean Edwards came out on the opposite end of the spectrum and urged her fellow commissioners to support the matter if nothing more than to acknowledge the work that staff had put into it.
"We've sat here and had these meetings and listened and talked and, you know what, these people have put a lot of time and effort into creating this thing," Edwards said. ".... But there is only so much they can do. At some point it's on us to do the rest."
Commissioner John Hayes said he couldn't vote for the measure until he had an opportunity to adequately review the material commissioners were handed on Monday.
"It's just not something I'm prepared to vote on until I've had a chance to read it," he said.
Earlier in the meeting, NAACP President William Wright, who has bucked the Commission's attempts at creating the race- and gender-neutral program from day one, said other cities and even federal entities use programs that offer incentives to minority-owned businesses.
He said he plans to make a broader presentation to the Albany City Commission at its meeting this morning. The city, too, is trying to set up a small business office free of gender- or race-based policies.
Following the meeting, some questions were still unanswered.
Two current construction projects -- an EMS headquarters building and a new Public Works building -- remain undone because commissioners were hoping to utilize a small business program during the bidding process for those projects. It is unclear whether the county will move forward with the projects or try to resolve the issue before taking them on.
Also unclear in the wake of Monday's vote is the future of the small business office itself. The entity has been given a $100,000 budget to operate, but following Monday's vote some people in the county were
unsure whether its doors would remain open.