A small-business study proposed by Mayor Tom Henry's administration got a chilly reception Tuesday from City Council members skeptical of whether the study would be worth its price tag.
City officials asked council to approve $43,849 for a portion of the study's first phase, which would try to determine if local small businesses -- especially those owned by minorities and other special classes -- are left out of the bidding process for city contracts.
Administration officials hope to hire Mason Tillman Associates, a consulting firm based in Oakland, Calif., to conduct the first phase of the study for a total of $143,849, including $100,000 in federal grants. A second phase, if needed, would cost another $90,000.
Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, said he didn't believe the study would prove worthwhile, as the city already employs three compliance officers tasked with monitoring contracts to make sure small, minority-or women-owned firms do not face discrimination.
"I believe it is extremely unlikely that we will find discrimination being practiced in the city of Fort Wayne in awarding city contracts," Crawford said in prepared remarks. "A quarter of a million dollars is a large amount to spend in tough budget times when I believe the chance of discovering actionable information is very low."
Council voted to table the study for a week.
Brent Wake, the mayor's legislative and business liaison, told council that some local business owners feel unable to compete for public work, but the city needs harder data to identify real problems.
City workers do not have the resources to conduct a study themselves and will not know how, if at all, to tweak policies without professional research into the issue, Wake said.
"Unless we identify what the problems are, it's very difficult for our staff to target remedies to address those issues," Wake said.
Because the study could result in specific race- and gender-based policy changes, the city also may need an outside consulting firm's expertise to help withstand lawsuits, said city attorney Carol Helton.
Administration officials would not discuss detailed policy changes that might result from the study and bring potential lawsuits.
However, under questioning by Councilman Mitch Harper, R-4th, Helton said she could not rule out measures such as favoring minority- or women-owned businesses for city contracts even at higher prices. Many city contracts must automatically go to the lowest qualified bidder.