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Multnomah County Hires Fewer Small and Minority Businesses

Monday, March 09, 2015


Multnomah County awarded fewer contracts to state certified minority, women, and small businesses over the past three years while increasing contracts to other firms. 

Businesses that qualify for the certification of Oregon Minority Business Enterprises, Women Business Enterprises, and Emerging Small Businesses (MWESB) were awarded 60 contracts from the county in 2012. However, that number dropped to 40 in 2013, and dropped to just 33 in 2014. 

During that time, contracts between Multnomah County and businesses without at MWESB certification increased -- from 97 contracts in 2012 to 144 in 2014, according to the 2014 Multnomah County Purchasing Report

“I’m never excited about a drop, but a number of things affect the outcome,” said Lee Fleming, the supplier diversity officer for Multnomah County Purchasing who works closely with MWESB firms in the county. “It causes us to look at what we are doing and what we can do better.”  

Multnomah County awards hundreds of contracts every year, for everything from professional services to construction. As the economy continues to rebound, so does the number of contracts. According to Fleming, 2014 was a record year for the total number of contracts handed out. 

For small and minority business owners, winning contracts to work on large projects can be game changing, according to Debbie Rockway, owner of AllSource Construction Supply

“It’s so helpful for a small business to come on a big job site, and to hopefully learn, grow, and be part of a big project you never would’ve had the chance to be on,” Rockway said. “There’s no way I would be where I am today without them.”

Rockway’s business is certified with the state of Oregon as a Women Business Enterprise. Prior to that, she was registered as a Small Emerging Business, but has grown past the size requirements. 

Hardships for Small Businesses
Small businesses make up 95 percent of all businesses in Multnomah County, according to Multnomah County's purchasing department. Making a smaller business operation succeed, even in a healthy economic climate, takes an enormous effort, Rockway said.  

“It’s hard. It’s amazing the amount of numbers you have to put in when you’re trying to grow your business,” Rockway said. “You sacrifice a lot and taxes take a lot.”

Oregon was ranked as one of the least friendly states for small businesses for its taxes and regulations by the Small Business Policy Index. 

When companies certify as MWESB with the state, it puts them on a list government agencies search for contract bids. Yet many eligible businesses do not register with the state as MWESB, and the number who do has dropped in recent years, according to Fleming. 

“The process to apply has very cumbersome, and that’s aggravating as a business owner trying to get things in place,” Fleming said. 

The state has been working to streamline the application process, Fleming said, and is aiming for the process to take 10 days, rather than year, as it has in the past. Already the wait time is down to a month.

The county and the City of Portland have been working with small and minority business through education and outreach programs to help inform and guide them through the process. 

Awarding Contracts
Fleming said there are a number of factors for the drop in minority contracts, including fewer MWESB-certified businesses applying for bids.

The Sellwood Bridge project is also winding down, which caused a jump in MWSEB contracts at its inception.   

Many private companies have their own goals for subcontracting jobs to MWESB firms. The main contractor for the Sellwood Bridge project, Slayden, planed to have 20 percent of subcontracting done by MWESB firms. 

When Multnomah County sends out quote estimates $10,000 to $150,000 at least three must be from Certified MWSEB companies. 

“We are looking for these companies,” Fleming said. “All citizens should have an opportunity to participate in business.” 

However, Fleming said it is still a highly competitive process, with a best value analysis required for every quote. And businesses must be proactive in their contract search, according to Rockway. 

“Being certified gets you nothing—you have to go out and get bids, just like any big business. Certification doesn’t hand you anything,” Rockway said. 


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