By blaming the Prince George's County government for their inability to get a "fair share" of county contracts, minority business owners are closing their eyes to the real sources of their problems.
Criticizing the county's record of dealing with minority firms, a group calling itself the Minority Business Opportunity Council of Prince George's County has implied that there is a deliberate attempt at exclusion.
To overcome what it perceives as discrimination, the group is demanding establishment of a set-aside program that would guarantee a percentage of business for minority firms. At least one member of the group believes the contract-award ratio should reflect the percentage of minorities in the county.
The MBOC's criticism puts the county in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't position on the issue. County Executive Parris Glendening recently issued a report showing that minority firms received 10 1/2 percent of the county's contract business last fiscal year.
The 10 1/2 percent met a goal that was set last year in legislation approved by the Prince George's County Council to increase business with minority firms. As a result, minority businesses earned about $4 million from contracts with the county last year.
Although apparently satisfied that the 10 percent goal had been met, Glendening believes that the figure can and should be higher. As a result, he has appointed a 20-member task force to develop recommendations aimed at increasing the percentage of contract awards to minorities.
But the MBOC regards the appointment of a task force as a meaningless gesture. "We don't need studies, we need contracts," declared a spokesman for the group.
To be sure, appointing a task force is no guarantee that minority-owned firms will receive more county contracts. But neither is the MBOC's what-have-you-done-for-me-lately reaction.
In the meantime, nobody has produced solid evidence that minority-owned firms somehow are the victims of a county government conspiracy to deny them contracts that are awarded on the basis of competitive bids. That is not to say, however, that there are no inequities in the system.
All Prince George's County contracts for goods and services in excess of $4,000 are awarded through competitive bids. But the MBOC wants no part of the competitive bid process. Its members apparently want to participate in the free enterprise system without having to compete in the marketplace.
Spokesmen for the organization, which claims to represent about 200 firms, suggest that the county establish a set-aside program in which only minority firms would participate.
An official in the Prince George's County procurement office complains that there is little response from minority firms who receive bid solicitations. "Many small businesses don't bid because they aren't familiar with procurement procedures," the official notes.
Indeed, the problem in Prince George's County appears to be more one affecting small businesses and not one that is unique among minority-owned companies. But then, virtually all minority firms in the county are small businesses. And the biggest need, it seems, is really more technical and financial assistance for small businesses in the county.
Even if set-asides were instituted, many small businesses would require some kind of assistance. Although Prince George's County conducts an outreach program through its minority business enterprise office, many small firms still are unaware of its existence.
"Our function is to identify these businesses and to try to get them certified and familiar with the procurement process," a county official explained.
Maryland's Department of Economic Development operates a similar program statewide through its Office of Small Business Assistance. As an ombudsman for small business, OSBA not only provides information about the availability of state, federal and local contracts, but renders technical assistance to company officials who are unfamiliar with the procurement process.
The MBOC and similar organizations may find it more productive to inform its members about the existence of such services and to encourage them to take advantage of them as well as state-run financial assistance programs for minority businesses.
Those appear to be viable alternatives to set-asides, which offer little incentive for improving the management and quality of some companies.
If Prince George's County is willing to let the record show that it wants to do more business with minority firms, then the MBOC should begin working immediately to help facilitate that goal. Anything less might cast serious doubt on the organization's sincerity and its role as a voice for business in the county.