Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Does Harrisburg need to increase minority participation in public contracts? Council says ‘yes.’

Officials from Capital Region Water and the City of Harrisburg break ground on the Third Street Repaving Project in November 2017. City Council members objected to low minority participation rates in the $6.3 million public project.

For months, Harrisburg City Council members have raised seemingly the same question to members of the city’s administration.

How many women and minorities are being hired for public works contracts?

Tonight, they got their first firm answer from Business Director Marc Woolley, who appeared at a legislative session to review the city’s success in hiring disadvantaged business enterprises, or DBEs, for its public contracts.

DBE is a recognized business category that includes minority business enterprises (MBEs) and women business enterprises (WBEs). A business can seek MBE or WBE certification if 51 percent of its ownership is controlled by minorities or women, respectively.

Most large cities across the country have policies aimed at drawing DBEs into public projects. TheBurg reported in March that Harrisburg’s own policies became the subject of scrutiny late last year, when council members grilled city officials on the rate of DBE participation in a major repaving project.

This evening, Woolley confirmed that DBE contracts for the 3rd Street Multimodal project, which will enhance two miles road and sidewalks from uptown to downtown Harrisburg, amounted for just 3.8 percent of the project’s $3.1 million construction budget.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement if we want to increase our participation percentages,” Woolley said.

But Woolley pointed out that there are other ways to quantify economic opportunity for minorities, women and other protected classes participating in public projects. He reported that minority construction workers have performed 47 percent of the work hours for the project’s main contractor to date.

“There are different ways to have inclusion in our contracts,” Woolley said.

Working with colleagues from the Department of Community and Economic Development and the city’s Affirmative Action Office, Woolley set out to determine how many DBEs have participated in city contracts in the past three years and how city departments can reach more through bidding and solicitation.

City officials also appointed LERTA administrator Charles White as the leader of Disadvantaged Businesses for the Community. He’ll assume duties of outreach in Harrisburg’s business community and will assist Woolley and others to implement the city’s DBE program in city hall.

According to Woolley, the program currently under development will have three objectives: removing impediments to business certification, participating in business development, and elevating small businesses and suppliers by moving them up the supplier chain.

Woolley said that Harrisburg’s current process for certifying DBEs is cumbersome, which could discourage businesses to seek DBE certification and, in turn, skew the city’s participation rate.

Woolley and his team plan to simplify the certification standards and are in the process of verifying the DBE status of every vendor that the city has hired in the past three years. The verification process has already revealed some vendors who were not listed as DBEs and who have since been added to the city’s Certified Minority Business Directory, Woolley said.

While some cities try to enforce minimum participation levels for DBEs, Harrisburg’s own DBE program will focus on education and business development, Woolley said.

Woolley told TheBurg in March that most DBE vendors enter city contracts as suppliers, as opposed to prime contractors – the entities that lead projects and collect the most lucrative contracts. City officials hope that hosting business outreach and workshop events will aid in the long-term goal of moving small DBEs up the supply chain.

City officials also plan to bolster outreach efforts by advertising public bidding opportunities on social media and in public service announcements.

“There are a lot of arms, legs, limbs going into this, and the biggest piece of it is education,” said Shaashawn Dial-Snowden, director of Social Equity and Affirmative Action.

Woolley expects to report back to city council later this spring with a complete assessment of the city’s three-year participation rate. So far, he’s analyzed less than half of the city’s vendor base, which revealed that minorities have accounted for just $1 million of $12 million in spending on public contracts.

Some council members expressed disappointment in the preliminary findings, but others said they would withhold full judgement until Woolley returned with updates.

“It’s still very low, we have to do a better job,” said council president Wanda Williams.

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