County may alter business office

ALBANY, Ga. -- Dougherty County officials are planning to research the possibility of either dissolving or outsourcing the Dougherty County Small Business Office after just six months in existence.

The decision came after a report from former program manager Pinky Douglas Modeste said the response from the public has been minimal.

Originally a response by the county to a disparity study that recommended the county discontinue its Small and Disadvantaged Business Office, which helped minority-owned businesses gain access to government contracts, the program was required to shift away from benefiting minorities specifically, and was designed to help small businesses in general gain access to contracts.

But after six months in existence, only 34 of the 484 businesses considered eligible for the program have gone through the required certification process needed in order to bid on county projects.

With a yearly budget of $140,000, some on the commission don't feel like the program is generating the response needed to justify the money.

"I say we just need to be done with it," Commissioner Jack Stone said. "Back when we had the consortium with the city and school system, money was spent everywhere; there were buildings going up everywhere and everyone wanted in on it ... but now, it's different. It's a dead issue."

The consortium Stone refers to is a past partnership between the Dougherty County Commission, the City of Albany, the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission and the Dougherty County School System. That partnership, which has now dissolved, used the disadvantaged business enterprise program to help minority businesses have a shot at winning contracts from all of the members.

In the last six months, however, there have been no significant county construction contracts offered, county officials say, and Modeste said that the multiple options for choices in small business programs, coupled with the hoops government bidding requires versus private, is watering down the response rate.

"There are a lot of other programs out there like SBA; the city's got a program, there are state programs ... there are just a lot of similar services being offered from multiple places whereas when we had the consortium, everyone came to one place."

The options, according to County Administrator Richard Crowdis, are to dissolve the program completely, to outsource the program to an entity like the Georgia Tech enterprise center which is currently being used to facilitate the city's small business program, or to hire a consultant as needed when large construction contracts come up to administer the program.

Neither is really an option for the black business community, at least according to William Wright, the former president of the Albany-Dougherty NAACP chapter, who told the commission that it was time for a new disparity study, contending that the former study was "botched," and that the small business program didn't go far enough to level the playing field for minority-owned businesses.

"We need your help ... black contractors are only getting 20 cents of every dollar spent," Wright said. "You need to toss out the botched (disparity) study, and put a protocol in place for a new disparity study. In a community with our demographics there is no way that such a small number of black-owned businesses should be getting so little of the work."

Some on the community voice frustration over the lack of results from the program, which they say was promised by Modeste following nine months worth of discussions creating the program.

"I distinctly remember you telling us that this was going to work," Commissioner Gloria Gaines said. "It seems to me that we're back to square one; where we were 25 years ago."

"This was not what we expected," Modeste replied.

The office hasn't been without its successes, however.

There have been 766 vendor office visits with the majority of vendors coming in for "other" information followed by "business plan development," according to documentation provided to the commission Monday.

Another 109 people were assisted through the department's Mentor Protege and entrepreneurship development programs.

Crowdis said that should the commission decide to keep the program and outsource it to the Georgia Tech program, that a considerable savings would likely be had in terms of overall cost of the program.

Depending upon how they structure the department, Crowdis said that Tech had given him a ballpark figure of $50,000.