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The Usual Suspects

After decades of equal opportunity programs, Jacksonville has failed to make a dent in the good ol' boys network

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To test the creeping sense he had that he couldn't win a city contract no matter what he charged, Tyrone Thomas bid $7 on a contract to remove a dead tree for the city of Jacksonville. He doesn't remember what kind of tree it was, but says he'd usually charge at least $75 to remove a 12-footer with a 4-inch-diameter trunk.

As he had been suspecting, he didn't get the contract. It was then that he decided that bidding on city jobs was a waste of time.

Thomas had done what he was supposed to do. He'd certified Mr. T's Tree Service as a Jacksonville Small and Emerging Business (JSEB), part of a race- and gender-neutral small business program the city launched in 2004 as an alternative to set-asides for minority- and women-owned businesses. But he didn't land a single contract. And while he's not quite ready to declare the program a failure, he does say that it failed him: "On bids and stuff like that, when you bid so low and you still don't get the work, something ain't right."

He's not alone in thinking that. "I don't feel the African-American licensed contractor gets a fair shake," says plumber Robert Flornoy. "It's supposed to change. It should change. They just keep coming up with a way to keep us out."

The JSEB program's goal was for certified companies to be awarded at least 20 percent of city contracts, thus spreading the wealth beyond the usual cadre of connected white guys. But last summer, Mason Tillman Associates Ltd., a California-based consulting firm (whose president, incidentally, is a black woman), published a study of contracts awarded by the city and its independent agencies — e.g., Duval County Public Schools, JEA and Jacksonville Transportation Authority — between 2005 and 2010 to minority- and women-owned businesses. Mason Tillman found that of the more than $1 billion awarded in those five years, 70 percent went to 38 companies mostly owned by white men. In addition, JSEB companies won just 6 percent of city contracts, a far cry from the aspirational goal of 20 percent.

The report wasn't all bad news: In some areas, like prime construction contracts valued at less than $500,000, both African-American and women-owned businesses did well. However, although black-owned businesses comprise about 18 percent of the construction firms in Jacksonville, they received only 6 percent of the dollars awarded to construction subcontractors.

On March 25, Thomas and other small-business owners will have an opportunity to question the regulations that govern these contracts at a meeting in the Florida Department of Transportation Training Center, at which the city promises a discussion of both the Mason Tillman study and the way forward.

For the past 20 years, the city of Jacksonville has said it wants to open the doors of opportunity to minorities and women. And for most of those 20 years, the evidence has shown the city has fallen short.

In 1984, the city instituted its first minority business program, setting aside 10 percent of all contracting dollars for those businesses. But studies of contract awards in Jacksonville in 1990 and 2002 continued to document racial and gender discrimination in the process, and after Mayor John Peyton took office in 2003, the city discontinued the program as part of a settlement with the white-dominated Utility Contractors Association of North Florida, which had sued the city, alleging the so-called "sheltered contracts" were unconstitutional. The move devastated the minority business community at a time when the city was awash in money, following voters' approval of the Better Jacksonville Plan in 2000.

Between 2000 and 2003, minority- and women-owned businesses won 24 percent of the plan's $138 million in contracts. After the city ended the minority business program in 2003, those businesses received only 10 percent of the $469 million in Better Jacksonville allocations.

Peyton proposed a new program (which the Utility Contractors endorsed) to help all small businesses win city work, no matter the race or gender of their ownership. Under the JSEB, anyone with a small business and a net worth less than $605,000 was eligible, including white men.

Peyton did set targets for the amount of business that minorities would do with the city. The goal for African-American contractors was 18 percent. Under his plan, if the city met its racial, ethnic and gender targets by Sept. 30, 2009, it would do away with demographic goals and just operate JSEB as a small business development program.

Had the Mason Tillman study focused on just the city, rather than on both the city and other governmental agencies, we would know if those targets were achieved. Instead, in 2010 the city decided it couldn't afford a study of just city contracts, and now — irony alert — says you can't draw conclusions about the program because the Mason Tillman study was so broad.

"When you pay attention," Tyrone Thomas says, "you notice that everything goes right back around to these same businesses that have always been getting the work."

Other African-American business owners see the same good ol' boy dynamic at work. Third-generation construction contractor (and co-chair of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's economic development committee) Rosa Carter argues that the Mason Tillman study justifies set-asides for women- and minority-owned businesses. If the disparity is well-documented, as Jacksonville's seems to be, that's legal.

"When you've got a disparity, you've got to do something," she says. "You can't just call it Boston baked beans" — meaning, you can't say red is green and make it true. "You have to do something to rectify the wrong."

But if the city doesn't see a problem, it's doubtful anything will change: "The JSEB program is a RACE, and GENDER NEUTRAL PROGRAM [sic], it is not a minority program," JSEB administrator Shamika Baker stressed in an email. She says the Brown administration is working to improve the program by recruiting new businesses and holding business development workshops, and Baker actively reviews city contracts for opportunities to set aside work for JSEB-certified companies.

"We are never happy with results, and we are always looking to do better," Baker says.

Mason Tillman made 40 recommendations for how the city could make its contracting process more fair. One was fairly hardcore: If a contractor doesn't include a minority- or women-owned business as a subcontractor, the city should throw out the bid. (That's what Orlando does.)

Mason Tillman also reported that some primary contractors won points toward city contracts — the city evaluates bids on a points system — by including a JSEB contractor as a subcontractor, but then never actually employed that company for the job. When that happens, Mason Tillman suggested that the city fine the contractor to recover the amount promised to the JSEB-certified subcontractor.

David DeCamp, Brown's communication director, says the city is reviewing the report, and City Councilmember John Crescimbeni says there's been no discussion of the study or any changes to contracting procedures. (Baker says the city will do another study in seven years.)

"I hope they don't come at us with that same old bullcrap because I can't take it," Carter says of the March 25 meeting. "If I had some eggs, I'd be egging them."

For more information and to RSVP to attend the meeting at 5:30 p.m. March 25 at FDOT Training Center, 2198 Edison Ave., call Beth Tramel at 858-4860.

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