Water woes may aid minority firms

Council deciding how to divide work on sewers

December 18, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Baltimoreans already know the bad news: Sewer rates will soar, roads will be torn up and the city will have to scrape up $900 million to fix 1,340 miles of leaky pipes.

But the City Council sees a silver lining to its Clean Water Act woes: work for minority contractors and city residents.

The council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee held a hearing last night to discuss how to make sure local minority- and female-owned companies get as much work as possible out of one of the biggest public works initiatives in recent memory.

Sewer contractors could be required to hire city residents for as much as 75 percent of their work force, members said. They could face criminal penalties for not doing so if the city adopts a policy similar to one in Detroit, officials said.

"Why do we talk about getting a piece of the pie? Why we can't have the whole pie?" asked Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "We're getting ready to go into this $900 million project. There's no need in Baltimore for anyone to be walking around without jobs."

Under a consent decree reached with the Department of Justice last year, the city agreed to repair its century-old system of pipes by 2016. Federal authorities asserted in a lawsuit that the city had repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act, polluting area waterways with hundreds of raw sewage overflows.

Some of the work has begun. The city expects to spend $150 million by 2007.

Although the cleanup will be a financial burden on the city and water customers, who can expect to see rates increase 9 percent a year for at least several years, the huge project will be an economic development opportunity, according to Council President Sheila Dixon.

Dixon prompted last night's hearing by introducing a bill months ago to "maximize participation by local business and minority and women business enterprises."

Baltimore's minority contracting policies have faced legal challenges, but no one spoke up against that goal last night.

Dixon called for a steering committee that would monitor minority participation and local hiring. She volunteered to serve on it.

But Andrea M. Garris, special assistant in the Mayor's Office of Minority Business Development, said that a committee in place since March has met with minority contractors on how to make the process more accessible. Large contracts might be broken up to make it easier for smaller firms to bid, she said.

Garris has been looking at the Detroit program, which requires contractors to hire half their workers from the city. Young said he would like to see that in Baltimore, with the share increased to 65 percent or 75 percent.

Young made plans last night to meet Monday with Thomas Corey, chief of the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office, to discuss local hiring requirements.

Councilman Robert W. Curran, chairman of the committee, said he hopes the hearing was the "beginning of a process that really means a lot to our city," with a level of minority contracting "that's going to be unheard of."

But Arnold M. Jolivet, president of the National Association of Minority Contractors, was skeptical.

"History tells us we're not gonna get a piece of it," he said.

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