Harris County Commissioners Court. Photo by Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media.

Harris County Commissioners Court recently approved a $200,000 fund that provides seed money for community colleges and school districts to conduct multi-jurisdictional disparity studies to determine whether minority- and women-owned businesses fairly participate in the entities’ procurement process.

“Business in Harris County are not operating on an equal playing field,” said Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the measure that would use $100,000 from Precinct One’s budget and $100,000 from Precinct Two funds. “Small businesses owned by women and minorities do not have the same opportunities as others in the region.” As part of the program, the Office of County Administration will work with the County Attorney’s Office, the Purchasing Department, and the Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity to create a fund for community colleges and school districts in Harris County to conduct disparity studies to determine if Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) are being utilized.

Participating institutions will be required to create and adopt MWBE programs using national best practices to remedy any race and gender disparities identified. Although Harris County is providing seed money, the participating entities will be responsible for most of the costs.

Public entities cannot create race-conscious MWBE program without first performing a disparity study. Commissioner Ellis initiated Harris County’s disparity study and asked the Port of Houston and the Metropolitan Transit Authority to conduct similar studies. Each disparity study indicated that MWBE’s were not well represented in the procurement process.

Harris County’s study, for example, showed only 9.1% of the contract dollars go to MWBEs, even though there are many more MWBEs in the region who could meet the County’s procurement needs. Black-owned businesses hold .5% of the contracts offered; Hispanics hold 4.6%; Asians hold .6%; Native Americans hold 0.1%; and White women hold 3.2%.

Harris County is expected to fully implement its MWBE program by January 2022.

“We are one of the most diverse counties in the country, yet diversity in public procurement is severely lacking,” Commissioner Ellis said. “We have an opportunity and responsibility to break down barriers to economic opportunity.”

Colette Holt with Colette Holt & Associates, which performed the county’s disparity study, said the federal courts require an agency that wants to adopt an MWBE program to first conduct a disparity study to gather and examine quantitative and qualitative evidence of discrimination based on race or gender in its marketplace.

“The national experience, and that of Harris County as established by its 2020 disparity study, is that without MWBE goals, minority and female businesses get little work,” Holt said. “Educational institutions that want to ensure equal opportunities for their contacts must abide by these federal standards.  Those agencies can band together to undertake joint research to reduce costs and ensure a uniform approach that benefits all segments of the Harris County contracting community.”

Multi-jurisdictional disparity studies allow multiple funding partners to pool their financial resources together to conduct and study across various entities. The county’s fund will provide seed funding for participating entities to pool their financial resources together for a multi-organizational study. “Minority- and Women-owned Businesses and Enterprises are the backbone of our local economy but are too often left out of economic opportunities that exist in public procurement,” Commissioner Ellis said. “Creating a disparity study fund is one step to expand opportunities for MWBEs throughout the region.”