Baton Rouge Metro Council agrees to fund $300,000 disparity study; City Hall says local business could benefit

The Advocate

The East Baton Rouge Metro Council agreed Wednesday to fund a $300,000 disparity study of City Hall’s purchases, contracts and bids with small and disadvantaged businesses, a move Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s administration said could lead to more local companies doing government business.

Slightly more than 9 percent of City Hall’s 1,115 purchase orders in 2016 went to small and minority-owned businesses, said Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel. Nearly half of the East Baton Rouge Parish population is black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 figures.

Broome’s administration had said the study could give the city-parish the legal framework to adopt goals for inclusion of certain types of businesses in its contracts. The study will focus on minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses, small businesses and medium-sized businesses.

After the Metro Council voted 8-to-3 to approve the study, the audience broke into applause.

Council members Donna Collins-Lewis, Tara Wicker and Trae Welch celebrated the approval as they recalled their attempt in 2009 bolster inclusion of DBEs, or disadvantaged businesses, in City Hall’s contracts. They said their 2009 attempt never reached its potential because of the lack of a disparity study.

“Many of the people we want to find out about as a result of this data that will be provided — they have to know that there are opportunities in their own hometown,” Broome said.

The city-parish will request proposals from firms to conduct the study. Excess sales tax collections from last year will cover the cost, though it is three times more expensive than recent studies City Hall commissioned about East Baton Rouge Parish Prison health care and improving prison infrastructure.

Purchasing Director Patti Wallace told council members a disparity study could boost competition for city-parish contracts, bids and more. She said 24 percent of the 274 sealed bids in the city-parish last year had only one bid or zero bids, and that the study should help identify more qualified people or firms that could do the work.

Council Democrats and Welch, a Republican, have mostly been on board with the disparity study since Broome proposed it in November last year. But Broome won over some Republicans, including Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso, by expanding the study to include small and medium-sized businesses. Baton Rouge Area Chamber President Adam Knapp supported the initiative.

Amoroso called small businesses the lifeblood of Baton Rouge. Republican Councilman Matt Watson was a tossup on the vote, as he previously questioned whether the money could be better used for roads and sidewalks. But Watson voted for the study Wednesday, and said Wallace swayed him with her discussion of competition.

“I’m worried about letting everyone who can do the work know that the work is out there to be done,” Watson said.

Metro Councilman LaMont Cole, a Democrat, connected the city-parish’s contracting practices to crime. He said bolstering DBEs in impoverished communities will lead to more job opportunities for young people who otherwise resort to crime.

“It levels the playing field for all businesses in East Baton Rouge Parish,” said Will Campbell, a commercial lender in the Baton Rouge market who spoke in favor of the study at the meeting.

Republican Metro Council members Barbara Freiberg, Dwight Hudson and Scott Wilson voted against the study, saying they had problems with the price tag. Councilman Chandler Loupe was absent.

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