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Blacks Knock At MDC Door

Advocacy Group Denounces Opposition To Setting Minority Hiring Minimums

April 19, 2007
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer

A black advocacy group rallied outside the Metropolitan District Commission headquarters in Hartford Wednesday, denouncing what it said was the commission's opposition to legislation that would guarantee minority contractors got work on a $1.6 billion sewer-upgrade project.

At issue is language attached to the bill requiring that a certain percentage of jobs generated by the huge project go to minority contractors. The main purpose of the legislation is to authorize the district to pay for the project by adding a surcharge to the bills of its water users.

During about 50 heavy rains a year, untreated sewage overflows into Hartford-area rivers, streets and basements from pipes that are too old and too small to handle today's volume. The MDC is under federal and state mandate to fix the problem.

District officials say language in the bill sets minority-hiring standards that may be unattainable, threatening the project.

About 50 members and supporters of the Greater Hartford African American Alliance marched outside the MDC's front doors, many carrying signs that read, "We need jobs, not empty promises." As they walked, the group chanted: "What do we want? Jobs! When do we want them? Now! If we don't work, nobody works!" they said.

Alliance members say minority groups have been under-represented in previous major projects in Hartford, such as Adriaen's Landing and school construction.

Mayoral candidates I. Charles Mathews, a Democrat, and J. Stan McCauley, a Republican, both marched with the protesters and spoke at the rally. Mayor Eddie A. Perez was invited to the protest but had a scheduling conflict. He sent members of his staff to distribute a written statement supporting the protesters' cause.

Nora Wyatt, a member of the Alliance who organized the protest, said the group had met last week with William DiBella, chairman of the commission's board. During the meeting, Wyatt said, DiBella told the group the minority community would not get any work if the bill is passed with the current language intact.

"They are saying we are going to get the crumbs, but we are tired of crumbs," Wyatt said. "We came here with nothing, so he can't take anything away from us."

Wyatt also called for DiBella's resignation.

DiBella later said he spoke with alliance members but denied he made any threats. As written, he said, the legislation sets quotas that might be unattainable. If the quotas aren't met, he said, financing would be impossible, the project would collapse and nobody would get work.

The new language in the bill, added by state Sen. Eric Coleman and state Rep. Art Feltman, requires that 18.75 percent of the small-business contracts needed for the project be set aside for minority-owned firms; that 25 percent of those employed in the entire project be members of minority groups; and that 5 percent be ex-offenders who have completed probation or parole.

Compliance with those targets would be monitored by the state's Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, which is also authorized to adjust them if it finds in a study that the supply of minority contractors or workers is insufficient.

But the legislation does not base the current numbers on how many qualified and properly licensed minority contractors and workers are actually available in Hartford, MDC officials said. By setting the percentages without any empirical data, the bill could jeopardize the bonds the district needs to finance the project.

DiBella said the MDC is committed to training minority workers and aggressively seeking qualified contractors to do the required work. But because sewer projects involve uniquely skilled and licensed contractors, DiBella said the bill's mandate could be impossible to meet. And because the requirements are tied to the main source of funding for the project, DiBella said a bank would likely balk at authorizing the bonds the MDC needs to finance the project.

"We are just trying to act responsibly. Nothing more," he said Wednesday.

Feltman said he is open to negotiations with the MDC, but the legislation, which is timed to be in place before the bulk of the construction starts, is also meant to have consequences.

"Sen. Coleman and I feel strongly that these benchmarks must be enforced and enforceable," he said. "Unless you have teeth in the bill, good-faith efforts tend not to achieve the purpose intended."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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