Editorial: Race, gender remedies in contracting won’t hurt taxpayers

Palm Beach County commissioners, in the wake of a dispiriting study confirming race and gender bias in the awarding of county contracts, wisely called for a 30-day period to gather public sentiment on how to move forward.

Those who comment — and we hope there are many — should now realize that our county government’s competitive process of awarding contracts, as well-meaning as it may be, has a problem. A problem that needs to be addressed quickly and to the benefit of all county taxpayers, residents and visitors.

There is no denying this — unless you insist on denying reality.

RELATED: Study: Minorities, women get sliver of county contracts

That harsh reality snapped into focus in a long-awaited Mason Tillman Associates study — backed by an independent third-party review — of how our county government unfairly doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for everything from roof construction to food service from 2009-2013.

The data show that firms owned by white men received a disproportionate share of those public dollars.

Female-owned firms, though 19 percent of the professional services market, won only 9.8 percent of the contracts and 5.9 percent of all the money paid. Firms owned by their white male counterparts managed to snag 72.5 percent of the contracts and 74.8 percent of the money, though they made up only 57.1 percent of the market.

A similar level of disparity involved black- and Hispanic-owned firms in prime construction, and goods and services contracts.

The study’s findings, which confirmed years of complaints from women- and minority-owned firms, could not be more timely. They arrive as the county begins a 10-year spending binge of an estimated $810 million in sales tax revenue to fix roads, bridges and county-owned facilities.

Even with this bigger pie, the 285-page study has come under attack from those who benefit the most from the current system. Opponents of race- and gender-based programs, after first questioning the need for such a study, now seek to undercut the firm hired to do it, the consultant hired to review it and even the data itself.

“The point of a disparity study is not to determine that various groups get what they think is their share of the pie,” Michelle Anaya Depotter, CEO of the Florida East Coast Chapter of the Associated General Contractors, told county commissioners last summer. “The point of a disparity study is to determine whether there is discrimination in the construction marketplace. There’s a world of difference between disparity and discrimination.”

But as the study shows in painful detail, the two are not mutually exclusive.

RELATED: Editorial: County can ensure women, minorities fair cut of contracts

A common objection is that programs set up to help women- and minority-owned firms often do so at a cost to taxpayers.

That’s an old, unfair and inaccurate argument, stemming from when federal, state and local government entities first sought to remedy years of discrimination in awarding contracts with largely quota-based set-aside programs. The lack of accountability in some programs led to a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that local governments had to show that selected businesses received disparate treatment in the awarding of government contracts to operate legally justifiable set-aside programs.

But since then, those programs have been scrapped and largely replaced. Palm Beach County, for example, created a Small Business Enterprise (SBE) program in 2002 that gives smaller firms “extra points” in the bidding process to help them compete.

The majority of small businesses winning contracts under that SBE program are white male-owned. Yet no one is demanding a higher standard of accountability from this program. It’s assumed that it is implemented in a fair manner that assures us the best quality for our tax dollar.

Why, then, can’t whatever new race- and gender-based program created by the county be given the same level of scrutiny? Accountability should be a part of any government program — especially because it involves taxpayer dollars.

This is not private enterprise. These are public dollars. The public agency that dispenses them has a responsibility to all in our community to make sure that while being good stewards of our tax dollars, it treats everyone fairly and equally.

And, yes, if necessary, offer a hand up to hard-working small businesses that have been somehow shut out and deserve a chance to compete for those dollars.

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