MnDOT remains short of goal for hiring minority contractorsby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — There's more disappointing news both locally and nationally for minority and women-owned construction companies. Federal stimulus spending on transportation projects has not been as much of a payday as hoped for.
In their most recent report, Minnesota transportation officials say they are again falling short of attaining their goals for hiring women and minority-owned construction companies.
Minnesota Department of Transportation officials set a goal this year of directing 8.5 percent of the agency's road and bridge construction business to companies owned by women and minorities.
MnDOT's Bernie Arseneau, who oversees MnDOT's office of civil rights, says the agency has fallen short.
"We have spent 6.59 percent of those funds on DBE [disadvantaged business enterprises]," said Arseneau. "That's up from last year, and it's not where we want to be."
Companies owned by women and minorities can seek an annual certification as DBEs. Federal rules require states, counties and cities using federal dollars in local construction projects make a good faith effort to direct some of the business to DBE's.
Many see it as equity. Nearly everyone pays taxes, the argument goes, thus taxpayer dollars should be used to hire companies that reflect the community they are spent in.
But that's not happening.
In Minnesota, of nearly $500 million worth of contracts using federal stimulus dollars, just over $32 million went to women and minority-owned firms.
A more dramatic statistic comes from new numbers from the U.S. Department of Transportation. When the DBE performance of all the states is added up, just over 2 percent of the federal transportation stimulus dollars went to women and minority-owned companies, according to the department. That amounts to $986 million as of Dec. 11, 2009.
Federal officials say $48.1 billion was targeted for state and local transportation projects, putting the DBE portion at about 2.05 percent.
Laura Barrett, executive director of the St. Louis, Missouri-based Transportation Equity Network, an advocacy group, is not impressed.
"It's just absolutely not fair that we're spending taxpayer dollars, and that many of our communities are being completely left out," said Barrett. "This is a shocking number, 2 percent is just absolutely under their goals and their goals aren't sufficient."
Minnesota transportation officials are attempting to remedy years of poor performance in hiring women and minority-owned construction companies.
The state has hired a facilitator to conduct monthly meetings where more than two dozen groups -- including contractors, unions and community advocates -- give MnDOT ideas for improving its performance.
State Rep. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, is willing to give the meetings a chance.
But he worries the delay attaining equity in state contracts over the years is adding up and affecting lives.
"When you aggregate the numbers from the number of years they have not attained their goals, that gives you a larger sense of opportunities women and people of color or disadvantaged business enterprises have missed," said Champion. "They haven't had an opportunity to improve their quality of life, to make sure they have health care insurance, pay for college, have a home."
Richard Copeland has quit the meetings. Copeland, who is African American, is the founder and chairman of Minneapolis-based Thor Construction.
Thor was once a disadvantaged business enterprise, according to Copeland. It graduated from DBE status into a construction company that does projects around the country.
Copeland says MnDOT's women and minority hiring problems -- and the solutions -- are easy to define. He says the agency's meetings are delaying action.
"Meeting after meeting that grew like an onion. Layer after layer after layer led to nothing but frustration, and everyone over there wasting their time instead of taking care of their business," said Copeland.
The news on including DBE companies in transportation spending in Minnesota is not uniformly grim. Out of the 300 or so MnDOT contracts let for stimulus funded projects, more than a few met goals for hiring women and minority contractors.
Some turned in an impressive performance.
For example, based on numbers supplied by MnDOT, Wisconsin-based Lunda, a heavy construction company, won seven contracts worth more than $100 million. That's about one-fifth of the federal stimulus given to Minnesota. On five of the projects, Lunda exceeded -- in some cases substantially -- DBE spending goals, but fell short on two others.
Dozens of other contractors with substantially lower DBE spending goals fell far short of attaining them.
MnDOT officials say construction companies have more difficulty finding and hiring DBE companies in some rural Minnesota areas.
The results also appear to show some contractors have more commitment and better connections when it comes to hiring women and minority owned firms.
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- All Things Considered, 02/08/2010, 5:19 p.m.