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City council hears minority contractors’ business problems

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
City council hears minority contractors’ business problems
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Joint hearing with GBIO focuses on bidding, payment system

 

The Boston City Council Committee on Ways and Means joined forces with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) to hold a public hearing in Roxbury on ways to improve the bidding and payment process for city-funded construction contracts.

Some 250 small business owners, construction workers and community members filled the pews at Roxbury Presbyterian Church for the June 5 hearing, sponsored by City Councilors-at-Large Ayanna Pressley and John Connolly and hosted by GBIO.

The City Council was represented by Pressley and Connolly, Tito Jackson (D7), Felix Arroyo (at-large), Charles Yancey (D4) and Mark Ciommo (D9), chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

GBIO was founded in 1996 by a group of clergy and community leaders to bring communities together across religious and neighborhood lines to work for social justice. Its representatives have testified at the state level as well about minority access to construction jobs.

In a pre-hearing presentation, Dan Cruz of Cruz Development Corporation, and Arnold Johnson of Crosswinds Enterprises outlined the mission GBIO has been formulating with contractors from the community.

“What is it we are trying to accomplish? We are trying to close the ‘GAP,’ ” Cruz said.

The acronym stands for Goals, Accountability and Prompt pay, he explained.

“Our goal is to increase the percentage of small and local businesses that work on construction projects, including contractors and professional services,” he said. “Right now, the city does not have any goals whatsoever for dollars spent on small and local businesses and minority or women businesses—and that’s something we need to change.”

For accountability, he said, “We want every organization that does business in this community to have to report on the number of dollars they spent with small and minority and women owned businesses, so we can see exactly what’s going on the community.”

As for prompt payment, Johnson had only to ask the contractors in the room to name their biggest challenge. “Cash flow!” was the immediate answer.

In the hearing, testimony came from business owners and professionals conveying their frustration at the lack of minority access to local projects and lack of timely payments when they do land contracts.

Michael Washington, a local independent architect since 1977, recalled the ideal of equal opportunity from the era of Kennedy, Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr., when skill, hard work and dedication were bolstered by both ideals and policies. Policies put in place then have been dismantled, he said, leaving little in the way of goals and accountability for equitable access. He also noted that small local firms often don’t hear about local projects until it’s too late.

“One of the most damning things,” he said, “is when an architect from another city calls and asks for my involvement on a project that’s right around the corner from me.”

Shelley Webster, owner of Centaur Construction Services, spoke of times she nearly had to lay off workers even with a good contract coming up because of late payments from previous contracts. Delayed payment, she testified, hurts a small business’s bank and credit relationships and makes it harder to become bonded, an important factor in landing larger contracts.

Webster and others traced the history of the family businesses that were started, grown and steered through tough times by their parents.

Pressley thanked the business owners for their testimony and “pioneering example.” She said, “I wish our young people knew as much about you as they know about Kevin Garnett,” a remark that drew an affirming round of applause.

Pressley also expressly thanked Connolly, as a white colleague, for co-sponsoring the hearing and keeping a firm commitment to minority hiring issues.

“It’s important that we have a diversity in the coalition supporting this work,” she said.

Several city officials spoke and fielded questions about the city’s policies and record on construction hiring and payment.

Evelyn Friedman, chief of the Department of Neighborhood Development, said there are only a few projects, such as renovation of city-owned foreclosed properties, on which the city hires and pays contractors directly. Her findings show that on average, the city takes 18 days to process payments. But adding in the time for developers to submit paperwork beforehand and get the final checks to the contractors at the end, the wait easily stretches to a month or more.

Friedman said improvements in electronic processing in the works will speed things up, but acknowledged the city needs to improve its “fix” process when things go wrong. She noted one case where payment took 113 days.

Brooke Woodson, director of the city of Boston’s Small and Local Business Enterprise (SLBE) office, spoke about the Boston Resident Jobs Policy and current reporting and accountability standards.

Woodson said Boston and other cities have been sued repeatedly over policies attempting to give a leg up to minorities and women. Because of that, he implied, the city must focus instead on policies to bolster small and local businesses, without specific race and gender rules.

An ordinance requiring stricter reporting of hiring numbers was passed in 2008, but is widely felt to be virtually ignored. Some said implementation has been slowed by wrangling over the wording of a form, and expressed amazement it has not been properly implemented in four years’ time.

Nonetheless, the Boston Resident Jobs Policy, established in 1983, remains in effect. The ordinance requires a “best-faith effort” by general contractors on city-funded projects to allot 50 percent of the work hours to Boston residents, 25 percent to minorities, and 10 percent to women.

Under questioning by Yancey, Woodson said he has only three staff members to monitor 200 projects, drawing groans and boos from the crowd. In addition to this small staff, the seven-member Boston Employment Commission oversees jobs policy enforcement, and a committee of citizen volunteers also watches over the numbers on some projects.

But the city jobs policy, even if enforced, applies only to individual workers, not businesses. As Cruz noted, the city currently has no policy to help increase the proportion of minority and women businesses and professionals on city projects.

David Lopes, a board member of Mass Minority Contractors and owner of Wellington Design and Construction in Mattapan, shook up the mainly calm proceedings with a fiery call to action.

“We don’t want to hear about technicalities, and data, and talk about a 2008 law that four years later isn’t being enforced,” he said. “Wake up, folks! You get what you fight for. It’s that simple.”

Lopes expressed impatience with data-driven discussions and the seeming hesitancy to take action and force change.

“There are disparities. We’re not making this up!” he said. “We are organizing, advocating, and moving forward because we want to change things. If we do nothing, nothing will happen. We want the access to come to us—because it’s our community.”

He concluded with an urgent call to improve trade school offerings for teens and adults in Boston.

At the end, Pressley asked Ciommo to declare the meeting in “recess,” underscoring that this discussion will continue.

Speaking afterward, she said the purpose of hearings like this is to listen to people on the front lines and hear their informed recommendations to the council and city officials.

“There’s an intensity when you come face to face with people, and they’re not a statistic or a piece of paper, something abstract,” she said.

“We already knew there was a disparity. That was underscored here,” she added. “But what came out of this was how devastating it is when people are not promptly paid, and also that we need a reporting mechanism—not just for employees, but for contractors.”

Hearings also serve to inform the community, she said.

“A lot of times there’s misinformation about what the city is doing and what’s currently in place,” she explained. “So we want to understand where the gaps are and give the community a chance to question the city directly.”

Pressley noted the power of the Interfaith Organization’s “GAP” acronym as a guiding force. “In these conversations moving forward, we can continue to come back to that tripod: ‘Is this helping us to establish goals? Is this allowing for greater accountability? Is this going to ensure prompt payment?’ It gives us a rough roadmap going forward.”

For more information on the Boston Residents Jobs Policy, see www.cityof boston.gov/brjp. Information on local, minority and woman worker numbers for Boston projects is publicly available at www.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org. (Search for “compliance.”