- - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The nation’s capital is apparently ignoring its own small-business set-aside laws that are supposed to benefit minorities.

There are 42,000 businesses in the District, and the D.C. Council passed a law a decade ago to set aside 50 percent of D.C. contracts for local, small and disadvantaged businesses. That special class of approximately 1,500 businesses, known as certified business enterprises (CBEs), are now getting shafted, according to several D.C. lawmakers and two dozen trade associations.

In fact, supporters who attended a recent rally outside city hall dubbed the event “Where’s the $1 Billion,” an estimate of the amount of money D.C. did not spend on CBEs in FY 2014, which ended Tuesday.

And the numbers in a Sept. 3 D.C. Auditor’s report apparently don’t lie.

Titled “District of Columbia Agencies’ Compliance with Fiscal Year 2014 Small Business Enterprise Expenditure Goals through the 3rd Quarter of FY 2014,” the auditor examined 82 agencies, offices and programs tended to by the Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD). The time period covered is Oct. 1, 2013, through June 30. The conclusion: The District spent only $83.9 million of a projected goal of $495.1 million against an expandable budget of $990.2 million. (You can access the audit here.)

Hence the rally cry, “Where’s the $1 Billion.”

The administration of Mayor Vincent Gray, a lame duck Democrat, disputes the numbers.

“The Gray administration has not violated CBE laws,” spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said. “In fact, through DSLBD, the administration has worked aggressively to reach and exceed compliance goals for agencies.

Ms. McCoy also said, “In FY 2013, 64 of 79 total agencies met the goal of spending half of their expendable budgets on local small businesses. Moreover, the council members’ numbers and that of auditor’s report are faulty because the final reporting date for all agency expenses is not until March of next year.

“Therefore, the auditor’s findings are incomplete and therefore meaningless,” Ms. McCoy said.

Small businesses had already made hay at the rally, which was attended by a handful of council members.

Maria Corrales of the D.C. Hispanic Contractors Association, who attended the rally, said, “We know that the Certified Business Enterprise program is a key economic engine for all minority contractors and it can help businesses grow and create jobs. Our commitment is to work with government agencies in the new fiscal year … by getting those critically needed contracting dollars on the street.
”We need to stop paying lip service to small businesses – they create jobs, and are the engine of the economy – D.C. government needs to put these contracting dollars where their mouth is.”

Thomas Dominique, COO of Battles Transportation, said emphasized that local jobs need to be secured for D.C. businesses and residents. “We employ 114 D.C. residents and have been in business for over 40 years. All we want is our fair share of opportunities to bid on contracts against national call centers and out-of-town competitors that are not based in the District,” Mr. Dominique said.

Jose Sueiro, who also is with the Hispanic contractors group, emphasized partnerships and homegrown businesses as well. “We have asked the District to support a ‘Contractor’s Academy,’ so we can build sustainable businesses. We have built an alliance with the D.C. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to help our businesses grow. We need to build our community of small businesses and our government partners ought to listen because we are building alliances so that the $1 billion goes to homegrown businesses.”

Not all D.C. agencies under the mayor’s purview are derelict in set-aside  spending goals.

State Board of Education President Mark Jones said that it is on track to spend “92 percent of our agency’s expendable budget on CBEs. So it can be done,” said Mr. Jones.

Many agency heads say they can’t find CBEs, but Mr. Jones said he doesn’t buy into that. “Our agency found them, so can you.”

Eddie Johnson, president of the Greater Brookland Business Association, delivered the most compelling perspective, saying: “These are some very difficult [economic] times … The bulk of the District’s contracting expenditures are awarded to firms outside of the District. It’s outrageous. We are making a fortune on the Power Ball 9 [lottery game], parking cameras and meters and [other] lottery games, and CBEs are getting nothing. We need to change this and hold people running for mayor and city council accountable. We need to vote people out of office.”

The council members at the rally — Vincent Orange and Anita Bonds, both at-large, and Yvette Alexander of Ward 7 and Marion Barry of Ward 8, are all Democrats whose national party has long supported minority set-asides.

Yet even in D.C., a Democratic-stronghold, elected Democratic leaders stray from their own laws and policies.

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