By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Last November NFL Defensive Lineman turned developer Bruce Smith, said the city of Virginia Beach was excluding him and other Blacks from projects in that city.
One of the by-products of Smith’s claim was a call by him and his supporters for a disparity study to determine the level of minority, specifically African American, participation in the city’s procurement process.
Like all city governments, Virginia Beach spends millions of dollars awarding contracts for goods and services provided by various vendors and developers. But African-Americans, especially, have complained for years their share of those dollars is small compared to the representation in their populations.
Initially, Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said, in response to Smith and his supporters’ claims, that a study to prove if such a disparity exists, was not necessary. He said the level of Small, Women and Minority (SWAM) participation in the procurement process was adequate and improving.
Pressure has been mounting on the mayor and city council from not only African-Americans, but the city’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) which is addressing the issue. The 200+ Men of Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach Vision have joined the chorus.
It seems those efforts have paid off: the city is working on conducting a partial disparity study.
While city leaders are pleased with the plan to do so, there are African-American leaders in the city who are not and are still urging the city to do a full study.
Virginia Beach City Manager Dave Hansen said the city will be seeking bids from an independent agency to conduct the study, which may have a price tag of $600,000-plus.
Although there are seven phases of a traditional disparity study, Hansen said the city will pay for only three.
He said the first phase of the effort will be based on a race neutral basis looking at the current level of SWAM participation in the system, its policies, programs and outcomes of the existing system compared with other locales.
Hansen said data collected from the initial phase of the abbreviated study will be presented to council and will be distributed to the community for public comment.
He said based on the results of the first stage’s finding, the second race-based segments of the study will be conducted.
Hansen said the city of Virginia Beach, despite complaints from those supporting a full disparity study, outpaces other Hampton Roads cities and even the state, so far as SWAM participation in its procurement program.
He said the extent of the partial survey should be enough to assess the current status of the city’s procurement process and identify issues which need reforming to make it more effective.
He said that the city will work “even harder” to improve on the current level of SWAM participation in the future.
Gary McCollum, a former business executive who ran for political office, is supporting the idea of a full disparity study.
“The city said it spent $17 million with minority firms, but the figure for African-Americans was about $5 million,” said McCollum. “This is egregious. They had a goal of 10 percent set in 2008. This is not how you achieve a level playing field.”
McCollum said the law fostered by the Croson ruling provides a race-neutral formula for completing a disparity study, which are being done “all over the country.”
McCollum said the need for a disparity study is not just “a racial issue.”
“If small minority-owned firms are allowed to participate in the procurement system,” he said, “it would enable them to create employment opportunities.”
When she arrived on the Virginia Beach City Council in 2013, Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond encountered her first assessment of the city’s procurement system outcomes.
She said the amount of money for services contracts provided to the city from minority firms stood at 9 percent, but for construction and development, that figure was far less.
This is when she began organizing a series of annual forums designed to educate SWAMs about how prepare for and navigate the procurement process to effectively compete for bids to acquire contracts to supply goods and services to Virginia Beach.
She also recruited help from the Hampton University Business Incubator program to help bolster the city’s efforts to educate and recruit minority firms to participate in Virginia Beach’s and other locale’s procurement systems.
She said the percentage of minority participation rose modestly, aided by the city’s hiring a specialist in the purchasing department to help stimulate the effort.
Ross-Hammond lost her re-election bid in 2016. But she said she still wants to be an advocate on the issue of the city’s expanding SWAM participation in its procurement programs.
“The city knows there is a need,” said Ross-Hammond,” because of the percentages.”
A. Bruce Williams runs a public relations firm in the Beach and is the Vice President of the 200+ Men of Hampton Roads.
He has led the group’s lobbying effort regionally for all of the cities to conduct a disparity study for a number of years.
“You have a lot of organizations pushing the city do a complete study,” said Williams. “Why do a study to see if you need to do a study? We are hoping that a regional, not just city, study is undertaken on this issue. If Virginia Beach, the largest city in the state, does one, this may pressure other communities to do one as well.”
Only the cities of Portsmouth and Hampton have done a disparity study. The cities of Chesapeake and Norfolk do not even monitor or report the level of minority participations in their procurement systems.
Virginia Beach is the largest city in the Commonwealth. Several weeks ago, staff members of the city’s Finance and Purchasing Department presented a power point presentation detailing the history and current status of the city’s procurement programs to council members.
It compared Virginia Beach’s procurement spending with Hampton and Portsmouth and the level of SWAM participation in their procurement systems.
Recent figures indicate that in Fiscal Year 2016, the Beach spent some $17.9 million in procurement contracts with minorities.
For African-Americans specifically, that number stood at $5 million, according to McCollum.
According to 2013 fiscal year figures, data secured by the city of Virginia Beach reported Portsmouth spent $3 million and Hampton $1 million with SWAMs participating in their procurement programs.
Bruce Smith’s complaint was about the level of participation in the city’s real estate development sector.
The presentation revealed that for the past six fiscal years, the city has awarded $68.9 million in contracts to “minority” firms to provide goods and services.
In Fiscal Year 2016, the city spent a total of $265 million on procurement and minority firms were awarded $17 million of that total amount.