City Reporter 

City Reporter

Black and White

Are prices inflated for minority contractors working on school projects?

By Mary Cashiola

Telling the Memphis City Schools board it was there in "black and white," Commissioner Sara Lewis passed out two memos Monday night that seem to support allegations that African-American and female contractors pay more for supplies to build schools than their majority-owned competition.

"This is real, this is happening, and someone has to do something about it," Lewis told the board.

The proposals, submitted by Fred Lowe Associates in Nashville to two firms -- Flintco General Contractors and Bricks, Inc. -- show an $8,000 difference in the price of chairs for Mitchell High School, which is building a new auditorium. Both proposals were dated May 13th and both were for 800 chairs and 100 tablet arms.

In her own memo to Hubon Sandridge, chair of the Capital Improvement Project Committee, and Johnnie B. Watson, city schools superintendent, Lewis wrote, "Please note that the bid proposals are for the exact items. Also note that the proposed price for the minority [African-American] contractor is approximately 10 percent higher than the price for the majority [white] contractor."

Lewis says she long suspected that suppliers used a "black list" price and thinks the practice probably happens a lot. "D.J. Miller & Associates said in their report [given to the board in July] that minorities and women are sometimes charged higher prices than majority [white-owned] companies," she says. "Well, I didn't have proof of that [then]. When I got these documents, I knew what I had in my hand."

Flintco and the African-American-owned Bricks firm actually teamed up for the Mitchell auditorium contract, which includes construction of a new elementary school in Frayser.

Lewis, who says she received the documents anonymously, wonders how the school system can be fair in awarding contracts if the costs to minority-owned businesses are artificially inflated.

"Assume that everything a minority contractor has to buy costs him 10 percent more," she says. "Do you see why his bid would be higher?"

Lewis asked that Watson determine if the memo indicated unfair business practices and, if so, take corrective action. "I'm certain that the company is going to explain it away, and I want to hear it," she says.

Fred A. Lowe Jr., president of Fred Lowe Associates, says that he was unfamiliar with the Bricks firm and the estimate did not have anything to do with their minority ownership.

"Whenever you give out a bid, it's a matter of trust," he says. "I didn't know if Bricks was the subcontractor or the general contractor. I gave them a higher price because I was unfamiliar with their credit standing and their role on the job."

He says he tried to call Bricks the day the bid was due but was unable to get answers to his questions. He points out that he quoted the same price to both Flintco and Inman Construction, another company competing for the contract.

The capital-improvement committee is scheduled to meet Thursday and discuss the documents.

Strong-arming the Scofflaws

DHS revokes driver's licenses of those who neglect child-support payments.

By Mary Cashiola

A driver's license can be a very powerful tool to use against deadbeat parents. Just ask Mitch Morgan, director of child support for Shelby County.

"It's kind of a strong-arm tactic," says Morgan. "You're going to have to pay child support or you'll lose your license." In March, the child-support division of the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) sent out 22,000 notices statewide, informing people who were behind in their child-support payments that they would lose their driver's license if they did not pay.

Those who received and signed for the certified letters were given 20 days to pay off the balance, work out a payment plan, or file an appeal. Now, the department is in the process of revoking about 2,400 driver's licenses and 260 commercial licenses.

"It's called a revenue jump-start," says Morgan. "It's a tool we've been using for several years."

The state does a mass mailing of revocation notices about once a year, says Morgan, but if a regional office notices someone who might be cajoled into paying child support by the threat of losing their license, DHS can submit that person's information to the state at any time.

Once a license is revoked, an individual has to appear before the court to get it back.

"It truly is to get them into compliance," says Morgan. "We're not in business to revoke driver's licenses. We just want to maximize [our efforts] and get as much child support as we can."

The state has received $750,000 from individuals who received the letters. Because Shelby County makes up about a third of the state's caseload, Morgan anticipates this area will get about one-third of the total moneys. Other tools the department has at its disposal for collecting from so-called deadbeat dads (or moms) include the "freeze and seize," where financial records are turned over to the agency. Officials with DHS can then take back child support owed from bank accounts, depending on the parent's financial situation.

The department can also put liens on property, deny passports, and intercept tax refunds.

But the commercial drivers' licenses -- required of anyone who drives a truck or makes deliveries for a living -- are where DHS has the most success because of the threat to the parent's livelihood.

"The tools are great," says Morgan, "but they're not a guarantee. There are some people who will go ahead and drive on a suspended license. They don't care."

Just Say No ... To Sex

New "Saving Your Self" program promotes abstinence.

By Janel Davis

The Britney Spears belly-button, music-video groupies, and sultry clothing commercials that have all become part of modern teen culture are taking one more blow as an area agency seeks to stop promiscuous behavior before it starts.

The "Saving Your Self" program designed by Christ Community Health Services of Memphis focuses on promoting abstinence, education, and positive decisions among teens through a holistic youth-development approach. The initial program will target the 38109, 38106, 38114, and 38112 zip codes, which include the South Memphis, Orange Mound, and Binghamton neighborhoods. The program is patterned after a similar one in New York that recorded a decrease in teen pregnancy among half of the females in the program.

Department of Human Services statistics show a slight decrease in the number of out-of-wedlock births to Shelby County mothers ages 10-17, from 927 in 1999 to 894 in 2000, and the agency's directors want to contribute to the downward trend. "Sometimes society will discount promiscuity and say that young people just can't wait until marriage for sex, giving adolescents the option for immediately satisfying but often destructively life-changing habits," says Dr. Alex Galloway, director of the agency's outreach services. "Our research discovered that 51 percent of teens ages 15-18 [in our poll] were already sexually active. We need to show young people that they are precious and they are worth more than what they are experiencing now."

"Saving Your Self" will be funded by a three-year $1.6 million grant from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. The money is the result of an initial planning grant that allowed the agency to conduct a needs-assessment survey among the teens it serves and who expressed an interest in a long-term program dealing with problem issues.

In addition to abstinence, which is the overall goal, the program will also address other issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse and peer pressure. The goal is to "address the overall needs of the youth, providing them with the information and resources to avoid participating in risky behaviors," says program director Shantelle Alexander.

The 32-week program will begin in October with 400 young people, ages 12-18, expected to participate. The program will run concurrently with the school year, with weekly sessions meeting at the agency's outreach office on Third Street. Paid educators will carry out the curriculum and organize the sessions, while 36 volunteer mentors will provide additional support to each of the six teens assigned to them. Alexander says special-interest incentives, like sporting events and games, will be provided for males, who have a history of not completing or participating in support programs.

Participants will be required to sign a pact to complete the program, with an option to sign an abstinence agreement. "While abstinence is a key focus area, we aren't going to force them to sign the pledge," says Alexander. "We're going to give them all the support, love, and information they need to make positive decisions and show them the results of making the wrong decisions."

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