FORT WAYNE — Mayor Tom Henry’s administration found a way to avoid City Council concerns over a controversial study on city hiring practices – it will spend the money from a fund that doesn’t require council approval.
The administration had asked the council on Sept. 4 to approve spending $43,849 to hire Mason Tillman Associates for the study; the total cost of the study is $100,000 higher, but the administration had dedicated $100,000 from a federal Community Development Block Grant toward the cost.
Technically, the administration didn’t need council approval for the $43,849 because the amount to be spent from the general fund was less than $100,000, but officials said they wanted the council’s blessing because a second phase later on, if needed, could cost an additional $90,000 and they wanted to be transparent from the beginning.
The city’s Brent Wake said that in 2011, Fort Wayne spent $77 million on construction contracts. Of that amount, only 0.9 percent went to minority-owned firms, down from 1.4 percent the year before. He said 1.6 percent went to women-owned firms, down from 3.8 percent in 2010. If the study shows the city is knowingly or unknowingly discriminating against these businesses, officials said, the data collected would give the city the knowledge it needs to correct the situation and defend those remedies in court, if needed.
That drew ire from Republican council members, especially when they heard remedies could include preferences for women- or minority-owned firms.
“I never disagreed with the goals (of the study), but I don’t like preferences, set-asides or quotas,” said John Crawford, R-at large. “That, I think, is discriminating against some businesses in favor of other businesses.”
Council President Tom Smith, R-1st, said he does not believe that the study will find any discrimination.
Mike Christman, board chairman of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, and Briljent CEO Kathy Carrier spoke in favor of the study, saying it would help all small businesses immensely, regardless of ownership. Christman is also CEO of Fort Wayne Newspapers, the business agent for The Journal Gazette and The News-Sentinel.
Carrier said it was difficult for her firm to get government contracts until the state added preferences for women- and minority-owned businesses. Then, she said, “it was like someone rolled out the red carpet.”
Wake told the council that the city understands the council’s fiscal and philosophical concerns with the study, but “we strongly believe the study is the right thing to do,” so it had made an agreement with the city’s Metropolitan Human Relations Commission to use Community Development Block Grant money to cover the remaining $43,849. Since that removes all property tax money from the equation, council approval is no longer necessary.