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District 3 council member Rowdy Gaudet, left, and district 6 council member Cleve Dunn Jr. attend a meeting of the metro council, Wednesday, February 10, 2021, at City Hall in Baton Rouge, La.

East Baton Rouge Parish is set to spend almost $400,000 to create a new division tasked with giving more government contracts to minority-owned businesses, according to Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's proposed budget.

The Metro Council had initially approved $228,000 to staff the new department with two employees, but the parish hasn't found anyone for the jobs yet. In the meantime, it wants to hire a contractor to get the work started.  

"We have executed a contract with a third party to take care of the initial work for two roles we haven't been able to fill yet," Kris Goranson, the city-parish's director of purchasing, said about the 30% increase his department is set to see in the proposed budget. "The city-parish is still actively recruiting for those positions. This is an innovation solution to addressing it." 

Goranson said the hold-up is finding the right, qualified individuals with experience certifying businesses owned by minorities, women and veterans and helping them get contracts. That experience often doesn't come cheap.

The Metro Council in April allocated $228,000 toward hiring a chief purchasing analyst and senior purchasing analyst. The full-time positions were supposed to be filled by June and November, respectively. 

"We've had many applicants but haven't been able to find anyone with the relative knowledge and experience successful enough to land them," Goranson said. "This isn't a new concept, but it is a new workload for the city-parish."

Now Broome's proposed budget includes $260,000 for the two employees and $160,000 for a professional services certification contract. The city-parish's parks and recreation system has agreed to contribute $50,000 annually.

Metro Council is set to vote on the proposed budget next month. 

The pay range for the first position is from $45,329 to $57,421 for the ideal candidate. The pay range for the second position is between $41,114 and  $52,838. That doesn't include retirement and healthcare benefits. 

The new division is a direct result of a 2019 disparity study the city-parish commissioned from Keen Independent Research. Using data from 2013-2017, the study found locally-owned disadvantaged businesses were capable of receiving 21% of government contrcts annually but only got about 5%. 

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The research found that, while there might not be many locally owned minority-owned businesses that can secure contracts for large-scale construction projects, there are a lot that can take on subcontracts within major projects.

The new division is supposed to significantly increase that percentage. It's also supposed to help disadvantaged business by giving them the tools and resources to go after other government contracts in the state.

"That study proved we need to do a better job than we've done in the past to reach out to minority-owned businesses," said Councilman Cleve Dunn, Jr., who lobbied hard for the ordinance creating the new division. "This budget is the first time we're approving something to monitor that progress and connect vendors so that they're more aware of the opportunities that exist within city-parish. I'm excited about that." 

Through its contract with JD Russell Consulting, Goranson said the parish will be able to jumpstart certifying entrepreneurs as socially or economically disadvantaged businesses. 

That includes establishing paperwork and supporting documentation, intake processes for that paperwork and the comprehensive evaluations it'll take to certify the businesses.   

"We have to make sure some White guy didn't put the business in the hands of someone else, like his wife or a veteran, to claim minority status," he said. "I can say we're doing that independent of us. It's our program but the evaluation and decision making should be apolitical." 

Even once the new hires are made, the city-parish's contract with JD Russell Consulting states the firm will not only establish the structure and process of the DBE certification program, it will also map out how the parish can increase DBE participation over time, oversee compliance with state and federal mandates governing minority-owned businesses participation in government-funded projects and define the eligible spending opportunities that could be awarded to disadvantaged businesses.

"It is about partnering with all agencies to understand what spends they have and how do we think about the scope of work and adjust it to be more inclusive," Goranson said. "In the event these roles are not filled, we may seek to use a consultant until we can fill them."