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VB Council acknowledges racial disparity for city contracts, shifts focus to potential fixes

Bruce Smith, Linda Bright and others said the Virginia Beach City Council needs to act on the existing disparity and inequality in government contract allocation.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia Beach City Council could 'unbundle' large city contracts or change the way contracts are put out to bid in an effort to increase the number of minority-owned businesses who are awarded work on city projects. 

In a final presentation Tuesday, council members reviewed the results of a multi-year study into the disparity of city contract allocation. The study found Virginia Beach should increase the number of contracts awarded to women and minority-owned businesses. 

Standice Melvin, a black woman who owns a mental health services company named Benevolent Family Services, said this disparity isn't new for other minority business owners.

“I have talked to colleagues who have repeatedly tried to get big contracts and haven’t gotten them," Melvin said. "Or they’re used to certain 'big names' getting the contracts so they don’t go for them at all."

In a period between 2012 and 2017, Virginia Beach awarded more than $1.2 billion in government contracts to various businesses. Less than 19 percent of that amount, or $221.8 million, was awarded to businesses run by women or minorities. BBC Research and Consulting analysts said equal representation should push that number to 25 percent. 

To change the problem, city council members are considering breaking down large, bundled contracts so small businesses have a better shot at competing for parts of large projects.

“Smaller contracts are actually more tangible," Melvin said. "I can budget that out and a [Request for Proposals] that’s doable gives me a greater chance of achieving [the contract] and then being able to do something bigger in the future."

Another BBC recommendation included setting new goals and standards dedicated to increasing the involvement of minority-owned businesses. These could include set-aside contracts or changes in the language of the contracts that are sent out for bid. 

“Having goals that are specific to minorities and to women is huge because it lets us know we have a place here and we’re wanted," Melvin said. "It makes me want to apply because I feel I have a better chance of getting it.”

Linda Bright, a former VB Council candidate and CEO of Health Care Services of Hampton Roads, said the city's outreach and communication with minority-owned businesses will be key.

“I hope what the city will do is to interview those individual companies to make sure their specialty will serve the needs of the contract," Bright said.

Bright said she is proud her city council has recognized there is an issue.

“It’s not so easy to say we should’ve seen this a little earlier, but this is a great learning opportunity for our city and our small businesses," she said.

Developer and NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Smith listened to the presentation at Tuesday's meeting. Smith helped initiate the study in 2016 after the council passed over his proposal for development at the Oceanfront.

“We are falling short, far short, of how competitive we can be as a city and as a region," Smith said.

Smith said he's not interested in set-aside contracts for minority owned businesses, saying he wants all contracts to be on the table and "people just want to work." He said the inequality in the selection process needs to change, and Virginia Beach residents should hold council accountable for finding ways to change it.

City Councilwoman Jessica Abbott said council could come up with solutions and potential fixes for the disparity at the upcoming VB Council retreat. 

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