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Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome is expanding her proposal for a $300,000 study that could open the door for City Hall to mandate requirements for the number of minority-owned, women-owned, veteran-owned and small businesses getting contracts.

Up until now, the city-parish could not mandate that a certain portion of small and minority-owned businesses receive government contracts as part of a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, or DBE program. Broome issued an executive order late last year to conduct a study of whether such businesses were being excluded from city-parish business, but the price tag requires her to seek East Baton Rouge Metro Council approval.

If the disparity study finds past discrimination or exclusion of certain groups, City Hall could adopt goals to make up for its past practices. Since announcing her request for the disparity study, Broome's office has added small and medium-sized businesses to the analysis parameters in hopes scoring more support.

"We have had requests to add a small business component to the study and we've worked to do that," Broome said in a statement. "The study will provide us with data to determine if we’re reaching a broad group of individuals seeking to do work with the city-parish."

Council members are set to vote later this month on funding for the study. If it passes, City Hall would ask for requests for proposals from consultants. 

Excess sales tax collections would cover the $300,000 for the disparity study. While commissioning studies is a common City Hall practice, the cost of the disparity study is steeper than most. The city-parish spent $95,000 on a report released in 2016 on East Baton Rouge parish prison medical care, and spent $100,000 on another 2016 report about fixes to the aging prison.

The Metro Council also approved two consulting contracts in 2012 for a major pay scale study and a Department of Public Workers reorganization study, which resulted in a successful ballot referendum to split up the department. The combined cost of the two studies was $386,000.

Metro Councilman Matt Watson, a Republican, said the cost of the disparity study is troubling, given recent conversations about the city's lack of money to tear down blighted properties. He also pointed out that Old South Baton Rouge residents recently asked Broome for sidewalks in their community around the locations where the state and city-parish have planned railroad closures.

"If we've spent the money fixing those sidewalks and tearing down blighted buildings — and we've hired local small businesses or DBEs to do that work — it seems we're addressing what she's trying to point out we need to do," Watson said. "And at the same time, (we're) actually accomplishing the things citizens demand be done with tax dollars."

Other Metro Council members said it's past time for the city-parish to pony up to ensure that disadvantaged businesses can compete for a piece of the pie. The consultant who performs the research would be required to host at least three town halls, evaluate city-parish procurement, make recommendations about how to eliminate barriers for DBEs, and more.

Democrats Donna Collins-Lewis and Tara Wicker pushed for a resolution in 2009 that pressed City Hall to increase the number of DBEs in its contracting to 25 percent. But Collins-Lewis said the 2009 resolution never had its intended effect, as the lack of a disparity study stood in the way of the city-parish doing anything more than encouraging efforts to include DBEs.

Collins-Lewis asked Broome to support the disparity study four months ago, when Broome was trying to win Metro Council approval for a roads tax. Broome agreed.

"We've known for a long time there have been certain people or certain agencies that have desired to do business with city-parish government but have been left out of it," Collins-Lewis said.

Asked whether the study is worth $300,000, Wicker responded: "The larger question is how much do we want to continue to lose economic opportunity to the community."

Broome's expansion of the study parameters has helped her win buy-in from at least one more council member. Republican Buddy Amoroso said he asked Broome to include small and medium-sized businesses in the study because he wants to ensure the city-parish includes more local companies in its business dealings.


Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​