Firms owned by women and minorities are being underutilized for the city-parish’s purchases and contracts even though 40% of local businesses in the Baton Rouge area eligible to provide such goods and services are owned by people of color or women, a study presented to the Metro Council Wednesday says.

The results of the yearlong disparity study, which the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council allocated $300,000 for last year, weren't shocking to city-parish leaders who were presented with a draft of the results Wednesday night.

City-parish leaders say they’ve known of the inequities for years, but now appear poised to tackle the list of recommendations included in the report. Researchers said would take years and a multitiered approach in order to change the way business has been getting done at City Hall.

"It's very clear we have an opportunity in the city to create economic inclusion for everyone," Councilman LaMont Cole said during the discussion of the results from the disparity study. "I think it's important we be aggressive."

Cole's sentiments were echoed by several others on the Metro Council Wednesday night following the report from officials with Keen Independent Research.

The results from the study were presented to the Metro Council on the eve of two town hall meetings the city-parish will host Thursday to review the findings with the public.

The first meeting begins at 11:30 a.m. at BREC's Independence Park Theatre and Cultural Center. The second is taking place at BREC headquarters on Florida Boulevard at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's administration has advocated for the disparity study, framing it as tool that would give the city-parish the legal framework to adopt goals for inclusion for small and disadvantaged businesses with city-parish contracts.

Council members were disappointed — but not shocked — to learn that only 4% of the approximately $2.4 billion in city-parish contract dollars between Jan. 2013 through Sept. 2017 went to minority- and/or women-owned firms. And only 1% went to veteran-owned businesses.

Those percentages were well below the projected 21% of small and disadvantaged businesses available during the same period, the report states.

The report says many minority- and women-owned firms in the metro area are socially and economically disadvantaged when competing for work within the public sector. They say such firms encounter difficulty obtaining financing and bonding which would make them more viable candidates for large-scale projects.

The disparities were even present despite outreach efforts by the city-parish to be more inclusive.

"At present, staff of the city-parish lack tools to do more … without additional action, the city-parish is at risk of being linked to a marketplace that perpetuates unequal outcomes for minority- and women-owned firms," the report states.

In their list of recommendations, analysts with Keen Independent Research said the city-parish could reserve certain smaller contracts for bidding exclusively available to disadvantaged businesses. The city-parish could also create a program that helps certify small and disadvantaged businesses and provides the financial resources that are often required to secure public contracts.

Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection, urged council members to act quickly to address the study's recommendations. Chambers stressed the Metro Council lean on the Mayor's Office to make sure projected spending in the city-parish's 2020 budget is more equitable to small and disadvantaged businesses before approving it next month.

"You guys as the government often have the ability to set the tone," he said during the public hearing on the item. "You guys have the power as elected officials to do something about this."

"We should be able to hit the ground running tomorrow on this," Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said. "For far too long, our small businesses have been left out of this process."

Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com