Truth lies somewhere between perception and performance in Prince George's county's contract awards to minority businesses. It appears that perceptions may be obscuring the truth, however, in the dispute over the county's sincerity in purchasing goods and services from minority contractors.

County officials insist they're "making progress" toward their goal of awarding minority firms contracts totaling 30 percent of the procurement budget. But black business owners complain that the county is not doing all it can to reach the goal.

The county's award of a $15 million contract to a leading minority-owned systems engineering and computer services and products company Tuesday underscores the contradiction between perception and performance.

The five-year contract to Maxima Corp. of Rockville -- the largest multiyear contract awarded by the county -- raises to 20 percent minorities' share of Prince George's expenditures for goods and services, according to county officials.

"We think we're making progress. Twenty-seven months ago we were at 9.7 percent," observed a county official.

"We do not feel that {the county} is making its best effort at all," complained June White Dillard, president of the National Business League of Southern Maryland. "We perceive that {county officials} are doing what they believe is {their} best effort."

Dillard, whose law firm has done work for the county as a certified minority business enterprise, says NBL is pleased to see Maxima receive the contract. On the other hand, she notes, there aren't many minority firms in the area that can compete for a $15 million contract.

"We're trying to get our people in position to bid on $50,000 to $100,000 to $200,000 contracts that we can successfully bid on," Dillard said.

Dillard's assessment of the ability of minority firms in the area to compete for major contracts obviously is a valid one. Most of the 5,700 minority firms in the county are small businesses, many with one employe. Dillard is also correct when she says that most of the contracts awarded by the county are considerably smaller than the one on which Maxima was the successful bidder.

On the other hand, it is significant that Maxima was one of five minority firms among six finalists that bid on the contract to manage the county's central data processing facilities. It's doubtful that Maxima or the others would have been in position to bid competitively on the contract 27 months ago.

Participation by Maxima and the other minority firms in open competitive bidding for a major contract is indicative of a significant trend as well as new opportunities for minority entrepreneurs.

Maxima, with sales in excess of $41 million in 1986, dwarfs other minority-owned companies in the Washington area. It is the 16th-largest black-owned business in the United States and was selected company of the year by Black Enterprise Magazine in 1986. In just nine years it has grown from a one-employe company to a leading high-technology firm with a work force of 1,400. While it is true that Maxima benefited greatly from participation in the federal government's 8(a) contract set-aside program for minority firms, founder and chairman Joshua Smith combined expertise, strong management skills and an aggressive diversification and acquisition program to make it a viable competitor in the marketplace.

Certainly most minority entrepreneurs in Prince George's aren't in position to compete on the same level as Maxima. But Maxima's contract with the county clearly demonstrates that opportunities exist for viable minority contractors.

In the two years since Prince George's instituted an intiative to expand business with minority contractors it has doubled its procurement dollar award to those firms, according to Dennis Brownlee, minority business administrator for the county. "All people want to hear basically is that you've reached 30 percent," Brownlee declared.

Overshadowed by the 30 percent goal is an aspect of the minority contractor program that is more important in the long run. "Our program concentrates on nurturing and helping minority businesses to expand as well," Brownlee explained. "Our program concentrates on providing technical assistance" to minority contractors.

Technical assistance, Brownlee added, includes a cooperative effort with the Bank of Boston and Bowie State College to provide management training and other business skills for minority entrepreneurs.

As an additional step to strengthen minority firms, according to Brownlee, the county has sought and received commitments from developers of major mixed-use projects to provide minorities business and employment opportunities equivalent to 15 percent of the cost of those projects.

Programs such as those should hasten the day when there will be more minority firms like Maxima that can compete with confidence and financial strength in the marketplace.