Citing a historic disadvantage, Missoula County will consider giving a procurement preference to small businesses owned by women and minorities when scoring applications in search of qualified vendors.
David Wall, the county’s auditor, presented the proposal to commissioners on Tuesday. If adopted, it would award businesses owned by minorities or women a 5% preference during the county’s selection process.
“With all the discussion of systemic racism and systemic sexism too, I wanted to think about, since I was part of the system, what I could do to try and mitigate that situation,” Wall said. “One of the things I deal a lot with is procurement and purchases.”
When the county issues a bid for a service or product, it typically scores the applications on a number of factors, including price and qualifications. The county doesn’t select a vendor based upon a single qualification but rather, it generally selects a vendor with the highest cumulative score.
Wall said businesses owned by women and minorities remain at a historic disadvantage under the established system.
“It seems like throughout our history, even now, businesses, especially small businesses owned by women or minority groups, have a much tougher time competing in the system because they have diminished credit opportunities,” Wall said. “There’s not currently a level playing field.”
Adding 5% to the scoring process could give businesses owned by women and minorities a better opportunity to compete, Wall said.
“I’d like to level that playing field a little, so any purchases made by the county is done fairly,” he said. “Our constituents expect a fair procurement process.”
Small businesses owned by minorities or women can register with the federal government at no cost through the Small Business Administration. Once certified, those businesses often receive a preference when bidding on procurement for the federal government and some states.
Missoula International Airport has a similar process in place, as do some other jurisdictions, county officials said.
“Once they are certified by the federal government as one of these businesses, when they apply for a bid or procurement with us, we can just get notice of that certification and give them a preference,” Wall said. “This preference is simply leveling the playing field because currently they’re at a disadvantage.”
Supporters of the measure within local county government want the preference to be meaningful without harming the taxpayers by forcing the county spend more on a product or service simply because it’s owned by a vendor who receives preference.
The county took no action on the proposal on Tuesday. Some suggested that other groups be added to the preference, including businesses owned by veterans and the disabled.
“If there are others beyond the classification of these two groups (minorities and women), it’s worth thinking about,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “I agree that if other folks aren’t doing this, they perhaps ought to be.”