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County updated on historically underutilized business program

Thursday, November 18, 2021 by Seth Smalley

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court fielded discussion and informational updates in regard to the Historically Underutilized Businesses program performance in 2021. The project is aimed specifically at making the process of government contracting and procurement with local businesses more equitable.

According to Texas Health and Human Services, the program is “committed to ensuring that women, minority and service-disabled-veteran-owned businesses get a fair opportunity to compete for all contracts directly and indirectly through subcontracting.”

Sylvia Lopez, the HUB program director with the Travis County Purchasing Office, laid out the performance updates for commissioners.

The largest portion of HUB program expenditures, $15 million, was spent on various business services such as plumbing services, information technology and more. Meanwhile, the county paid out almost $9 million to historically underutilized construction companies and about $3.5 million to historically underutilized professionals such as architects, engineers and physicians.

However, according to the presentation from the county purchasing office, these figures represented only about a quarter of the HUB program’s aspirational goals. The goals were set following a 2016 disparity study; according to Lopez, the HUB program is in the midst of a second disparity study to update goalposts, which will be available in January.

Of professional services spending, about 76 percent went to woman-owned businesses or contractors, while about 10 percent went to Hispanic Americans and about 7 percent went to African American businesses or contractors.

Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion addressed the point that at first glance, in some categories, demographic disparities would seem to persist.

“We look at some of the ethnic numbers and we say, wow this might seem a little low. But oftentimes, if you’re looking at aspirational goals, and you are a woman-owned business that happens to be owned by an African American, the woman-owned business number will be higher,” Travillion said, before suggesting disaggregating the numbers to see a more specific breakdown.

Lopez also pointed out that in other categories, like commodities, payments to underserved demographics actually appear higher. In commodities, African American groups received 32 percent of the payments, while woman-owned groups received 31 percent of payments.

Commissioner Ann Howard suggested including the goal information from the disparity study more prominently in future presentation slides.

“I think the information we were looking at didn’t layer on what the goals were,” Howard said. “I always like to know if the program is achieving what we wanted it to or if we need to work on a certain area.”

Travillion also expressed appreciation for the project. “They have taken a program that was a voluntary program and turned it into a program that has teeth from a compliance standpoint,” he said. “That is not a very easy thing, particularly in the 5th Circuit of the country, which we often refer to as the Confederate Circuit.”

This year marked the HUB program’s 27th anniversary in Travis County, in addition to being the most prolific year for HUB utilization.

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