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County going back to drawing board on set-asides

Tuesday, October 19, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

Minority and female contractors would get a bigger chunk of Cook County construction dollars under a plan some commissioners are pushing.

Monday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that minority participation in county-funded construction projects has fallen 97 percent in the last five years. Black-owned firms got just 1 percent of the $57.5 million paid out last year, county records show.

In 1999, 45 percent of all county construction contracts went to minority- or women-owned firms. Last year, that dropped to 8 percent.

That drop is attributable to a 2001 federal court ruling that said set-asides for minority firms were unconstitutional. It was echoed last year for Chicago and will be tested today for the state.

Though it's not on the agenda for today's meeting, county Commissioner Roberto Maldonado wants participation by minority- and women-owned firms to increase by year's end, with talks to start now.

Commissioner Forrest Claypool plans to introduce a resolution, urging Cook County Board President John Stroger to appoint a task force to develop a legally valid ordinance to re-establish a set-aside program for such firms.

That's what the City of Chicago did last year, and something Claypool said can easily be duplicated in county government, calling the current percentages "disgraceful."

Documentation needed

Records show last year firms owned by minorities got 7 percent, or $3.9 million, of the $57.5 million in county construction dollars, while women-owned firms got 1 percent, or $682,932.

Included in the minority contracts is $1.2 million Hispanic- and Asian-owned firms got in medical equipment contracts. Pure construction dollars, though, drop minority participation to 4 percent.

"We need to document the disparities in participation, which we've never done before," Maldonado said. "Then we can talk about an ordinance, since we'll have the documentation of discrimination, and we can move forward. We don't need another year or two years of this happening to the minority business community."

In July, Commissioner Mike Quigley raised concerns about the contracting practices. Stroger said then, in a letter, that a task force was established -- with legal advisers -- and it would "brainstorm" for a plan while "investigating the possibility of working" with city, state and other agencies to develop a viable strategy. No committee meeting dates are noted in his letter.

But Stroger notes he believes he has "taken the necessary steps" to "restore the county's ordinance."

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