When unfamiliar trucks arrive at a city project site in your neighborhood, and unfamiliar faces appear to do the work, have you and your neighbors wondered: who are those people, how did they get that contract, and how did they get those jobs?OPINION
In April of 2013, I was still living in the 10th ward. Being an all-weather walker, I was heading out one misty morning to perform an errand, when I was brought to a halt by a large signthat was mounted between two metal stanchions, and located on the parkway on the southwest corner of the intersection of 111th and Avenue L.
The sign pertained to a street resurfacing and refurbishing project (which I assumed was part of the recently established East Side TIF). The post information detailed the minimum wage, equal employment opportunity rights, and most important, the names and contact information for the prime and subcontractors, all of whom were in far-flung suburbs. Very far, very flung. One subcontractor was supposedly in Chicago, but it too had a phone number with a suburban area code.
City contracts, city dollars, and potential city jobs . . . but suburban contractors?
As the spring mist fell, I jotted down the information in a small notebook. As I ran my errand, I pondered going over to my alderman’s office to voice my concern about the matter, but the door to his office had recently been blocked by a mountain of petcoke.
Why are city contracts — and our dollars — being awarded to suburban contractors? Those dollars should — must! — stay here, and specifically, in the neighborhoods of the South and West Sides, where those dollars, and jobs, are sorely needed.
The candidates running against Mayor Emanuel have all called for a shift in political and economic focus from “downtown” to the neighborhoods. In mid-December, Mr. Fioretti broadly outlined on these pages a plan to use TIF funds — which derive from property taxes — to reinvigorate neighborhood development. All very well and good.
However, unless there is mechanism in place that ensures that city money spent on contracts for neighborhood development stays in those neighborhoods, the full benefit of any such plan will not be achieved. Therefore, after the election, the newly seated City Council, and the new mayor, need to review and revise the sections of the city’s municipal code that govern the awarding of city contracts to favor, as much as possible, city contractors and residents.
Admittedly, I am not a lawyer, and while I am not fluent in the legalese of city government, I did spend some time recently researching the city’s municipal code, both online and at City Hall. Specifically, I was interested in “Title 2, City Government and Administration, Chapter 2-92: Department of Purchases, Contracts, and Supplies,” and especially sections 2-92-330 through and including 2-92-412. (These sections of the municipal code cover such diverse matters as the hiring of apprentices, the awarding of contracts to businesses owned by people with disabilities, and the percentage of minorities to be hired under a given contract).
I found the sections pertaining to the issue at hand to be, at times, head-scratching. In section 2-92-330, for a hypothetical city contract valued at $100,000 (I’m using the city’s numbers here), 50 percent of the hours worked must be by city residents, but only 7.5 percent by residents living in the “project area.” Please note, that’s the percentage of the number of hours worked, not the percentage of actual employees on the project, nor the percentage of the value of the contract — now that would be an interesting number! And 7.5 percent is, as far as I’m concerned, a paltry figure indeed.
These numbers are to be monitored by the city’s chief procurement officer in the Department of Procurement Services, using, primarily, payroll records to be submitted by the contractor. However, this section also contains language that allows for the chief procurement officer to use information submitted in “good faith.” In addition, the chief procurement officer can also “reduce” or even “waive” the above requirements in favor of the “bidder or contractor.” For me, there is too much ambiguity and leeway here, neither of which favors the city’s residents who need those jobs.
Finally, one might get the idea, from section 2-92-412, that city-based firms have the upper hand in the bidding process, but a “bid preference” is issued, or denied, again by the chief procurement officer, who can defer to “the city’s best interest.”
That’s as ambiguous a phrase as you’ll ever encounter.
Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I am a concerned citizen who believes the best place for city money — especially the potential millions in TIF funds — is in the pockets of city-based contractors who hire city residents, and who especially give preference to the residents of the neighborhoods where the work is performed. Now that would be an economic engine, and one that works in “the city’s best interest.”
John Vukmirovich is a writer and researcher who lives in Chicago.