Edge for minority bids gets backing

At a cost of more than half a million dollars, the Augusta Commission has what it needs to restart an affirmative action program for hiring city contractors.

The commission heard a report Tuesday by White Plains, N.Y.-based NERA Economic Consulting, hired in 2007 for $586,265 to compile data on discrimination so the city, if challenged in federal court, can justify giving preference to minority-owned businesses.

NERA Vice President Jon Wainwright and attorney Colette Holt told commissioners that inequalities have persisted not only in the private sector but also in the city's procurement practices, even when the old Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program was in place.

The firm analyzed contracts awarded between 2003-07 and found businesses owned by white men were five times more likely to submit winning bids. Minority- and women-owned firms made up 35 percent of available businesses, the study said, but were hired only about 7 percent of the time.

They also have a harder time securing loans, are likely to pay higher interest rates, can be charged higher prices for supplies and are shut out of industry networks grounded in churches and country clubs, NERA reported.

The study was based on market research, census data, surveys and focus groups.

"Based on what we're seeing," Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason said after the presentation, "there's clearly compelling evidence that we're in need of a program."

Later, the commission voted unanimously to have City Administrator Fred Russell apply NERA's recommendations to the building of a new marshal's office substation off Deans Bridge Road, which will serve as a test run for a new affirmative action program.

The city's old program was halted after a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional in 2007, a decision that arose out of a lawsuit filed by Thompson Building Wrecking Co. after its bid to demolish the Telfair Street candy factory was rejected by the city over a technicality.

The judge said the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program was based on old data -- a disparity study from 1994.

The city spent thousands of dollars defending the program even though the city attorney had told the commission a year earlier that it could be successfully challenged because the study was old. The city had already begun the process for a new disparity study.

Since the affirmative action program was suspended, the city has still employed a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise coordinator, but her job has been to help local small businesses in the bidding process, not minority businesses explicitly.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.