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Hamilton Co. government has big disparities in contracts for minority-owned businesses

From left: Commission Vice President Alicia Reece, Commission President Stephanie Summerow-Dumas, Commissioner Denise Driehaus, and County Administrator Jeff Aluotto.
Becca Costello
From left: Commission Vice President Alicia Reece, Commission President Stephanie Summerow-Dumas, Commissioner Denise Driehaus, and County Administrator Jeff Aluotto.

Minority- and woman-owned businesses are not getting their fair share of government contracts in Hamilton County, according to a new report conducted for the Board of County Commissioners.

The analysis finds about 8% of county and MSD contracts go to minority- and woman-owned businesses, but there are enough of those businesses to get three times as many contracts.

“If you can't measure it, you can't improve it. And Hamilton County has been willing to measure itself,” said Robert Bell, county director of economic inclusion and equity.

County commissioners hired BBC Research and Consulting to conduct the study, which includes five-and-a-half years of data from 2016 to 2021. Managing Director Sameer Bawa says there are substantial disparities for all business groups across all types of contracts.

“Even when Hamilton County and MSD were spending money with minority- and women-owned businesses, when we dug into those dollars, there seems to be some issues with those dollars being concentrated in relatively few hands,” Bawa said. “That is, the majority of the dollars going to minority- and women-owned businesses are actually going to a handful of firms.”

Businesses owned by white men were awarded $1.3 billion in contracts during the study time period, compared to $106 million for minority- and woman-owned businesses.

The study calculates a "disparity index" based on businesses available for certain work compared to actual utilization of those businesses. That shows overall:

  • County contracts have greater disparities than MSD contracts
  • White woman-owned businesses have the smallest level of disparity at the county
BBC Research and Analysis

The disparities break down differently for county contracts compared to MSD contracts, and depending on contract size, prime vs. subcontract, etc.

The report recommends a couple dozen strategies to address the problem, including contract-specific goals for minority- and women-business participation, and doing a competitive bid process for all professional services.

County commissioners say they will quickly implement new policies to reduce disparities.

“We cannot have taxation without participation,” said Commission Vice President Alicia Reece. “I think we need to start this conversation off as, this is not a handout or a carve out. These are companies — small businesses, women-owned, Black-owned, minority-owned — who, for some reason, Uncle Sam can find them. We’re equal on tax day and unequal every other day.”

The county Department of Economic Inclusion and Equity manages current efforts to increase minority participation. Bell says when commissioners implement new policies, he’ll need more than the two people on his staff to keep up with the extra work.

"As the board is aware, it's difficult ... especially as a county in Ohio, it's very difficult to make intentional progress towards some of these goals without the backing of a disparity study and the results of that," said County Administrator Jeff Aluotto.

Aluotto says he’s working with Bell to lay out a timeline for evaluating and implementing new policies.

Below: presentation slides and executive summary of the report.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.