Janice Malone is glad Mobile has begun following the lead of other cities in the way it awards certain contracts.

Malone, owner of BRC Design and Print, said she has been getting city contracts for some time, but thinks making the once somewhat arduous process easier can only help. Through the city’s new software system developed by Tyler Technologies, Chief Procurement Officer Don Rose and Supplier Diversity Manager Archnique Kidd have developed an online portal, replacing the paper-based process for sending out requests for proposal (RFPs).

“I’ve been getting stuff from the city for years now. More and more, you know, as the years go on, so this is only going to refine the process and make it easier for us to see when bids are available in case we miss them,” Malone said, following a supplier town hall meeting held last week. “Before, they had this whole faxing process and if somehow the ink was out of the fax machine, or the fax machine wasn’t working, or if there was a problem with the phone line, you didn’t get the bid.”

The city has also made an effort to refine the process and more closely follow rules currently on the books to allow local suppliers — within the police jurisdiction — and suppliers within a certain group of categories to get more jobs.

“I do like the fact they are giving — I won’t say set-asides — but they’re giving some advantage points to local businesses and businesses that are strapped in certain categories,” Malone said. “Women owned, [disadvantaged business enterprises and] veteran owned, these are the same things the [federal] government gives [preference to]. Notoriously these categories have been underrepresented, so I’m glad to see the city is recognizing that.”

The Zoghby Act — the law which established Mobile’s current form of government — has a provision requiring the city to make every effort to ensure contracts awarded by the city include 15 percent individual participation by minorities, or participation by disadvantaged business enterprises owned by minorities.

In addition, a recent change to state law allows the city to award a contract to a local business, as long as it’s within 5 percent of the lowest in-state bidder. Contracts coming from small businesses, or businesses owned by minorities including veterans, are now allowed by state law to be awarded even if they’re as much as 10 percent higher than the “lowest responsible bid,” Kidd said at the town hall meeting. The new state laws cannot be used for public works contracts.

Contracts can now also be awarded to local businesses if they’re as much as 10 percent higher than an out-of-state bidder, Kidd added.

In addition to making it easier for individual business owners to find out about city requests, the new technology allows the city to identify minority-owned businesses, Kidd said in a separate interview with Lagniappe.

“We are now capturing … who are women … and who are ethnic minorities,” she said. “Tyler is allowing us to identify that.”

In the past, the city has used the disadvantaged business enterprise list compiled by the Alabama Department of Transportation, but with that list it’s sometimes hard to distill it down to just those contractors from Mobile, Kidd said.

The system, which allows contractors to upload their information manually into the system, will only get better as more suppliers are educated on what the city is looking for. For instance, on projects of $55,000 or more, the city has to hire a supplier with a state general contractor’s license. However, this doesn’t prevent primary contractors — those with the proper license — from working with subcontractors from a disadvantaged business enterprise. Contractors must also be properly insured to do work for the city.

“Many [suppliers] who work as subs don’t have the necessary bonding and insurance,” Kidd said. “That’s a hurdle easily overcome with education. Many don’t know where to go or who to go to for that information.”

The city has been working to distribute this information through a series of meetings similar to the one held last week. The department has also held meetings that allow general contractors and subcontractors to meet, in hopes groups of contractors will get together on projects.

The issue of supplier diversity has been important to Councilman Levon Manzie, who along with Councilman Fred Richardson recently threatened to vote down a $1 million sidewalk contract if the white owner of a contracting firm didn’t hire a minority-owned subcontractor.

Certain answers on the city’s supplier diversity questionnaire were at issue for Manzie — specifically the contractor’s assurance minorities made up more than 15 percent of its workforce.

At the time, Manzie said, that ran counter to the intent of the Zoghby Act provision. Although the contractor in question added to the questionnaire a list of possible subcontractors from disadvantaged business enterprises and Manzie was part of the unanimous affirmative vote, he stood by his original objections for any future contracts.

While Manzie said he applauds the new supplier diversity program, he did mention a couple of changes he would like to see in the future — for instance, a requirement that the percentage of minority involvement comes through minority ownership.

“The intention was to build capacity among employers,” Manzie said. “That’s one area to consider the change.”

Manzie further said, given the majority African-American demographic of the city, he’d also like to see the 15 percent stated in Zoghby increased. By increasing the requirement, Manzie believes the city’s youth will be able to get educated and then move back home to Mobile, rather than move to cities with more opportunities.

“I’d love to see people move back,” Manzie said. “It would be a win-win for everybody.”