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County's minority contracts plummet to 'pathetic' low

Monday, October 18, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

Black-owned firms got only 1 percent of the $57.5 million in construction contracts paid out by Cook County government last year, according to county records.

Minority and women-owned firms overall got only 8 percent of those dollars, a statistic one official described as "pathetic" in making a call for change.

Records show a 97 percent drop in participation of minority and women-owned firms on county construction contracts since 1999, which has some contractors criticizing County Board President John Stroger for not doing more to turn around the numbers.

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But Stroger said he's been hampered since a federal court ruled in 2001 that the county couldn't continue to mandate 40 percent of all contracts go to such firms.

Still, records show those companies have taken a noticeable hit in the amount of county work they do as either prime or sub contractors.

With the county forest preserves set to spend up to $50 million on capital projects, some are concerned about whether minority and women-owned firms will get any substantial work on the projects because records show white-owned firms have ignored subcontracting opportunities with such companies.

"These numbers are pathetic," said Cook County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado. "They're insulting to the minority community overall. Businesses are suffering, their employees are suffering, so communities are suffering."

Last year, the City of Chicago's requirements for minority and women-owned contractors were similarly struck down by a federal judge. Tuesday, the State of Illinois' requirement that disadvantaged businesses get at least 12.5 percent of all projects backed by federal funds will be tested in federal court.

In each case, a cry came that without legislative requirements, minority and women-owned firms would be shut out of work. In striking down Chicago's rule, a federal judge conceded that 10 states saw such participation plummet after their specific contracting requirements were killed.

Cook County's 2003 records provide the first local example backing the arguments.

Though $57.5 million in county construction contracts were paid out last year, white-owned firms collected about $53 million of that work as prime or sub contractors, which Stroger said wouldn't have happened if the county had been able to stand by its ordinance.

"The ordinance was put in place to provide a fair playing ground for minority participation," said Stroger spokeswoman Caryn Stancik. "Though we were disappointed by the court ruling, we continue to encourage minority participation in all of our contracts."

But Omar Shareef, head of the African-American Contractors Association, said Stroger and others "aren't doing enough to protect the interests of minority vendors."

"They had advocates who spoke up and got them in the position they're in," Shareef said. "Now, I'm asking President Stroger and the others to do something for us."

He said many general contractors have established relationships with other white-owned firms, leaving minority and women-owned firms out of work.

"It's the unfortunate reality of our world," said Beth Dorie, of the Federation of Women Contractors.

"We do everything we can to reach out to general contractors, but they tend to stick with their own groups," she added. "We've worked with them and they said we did a fabulous job, on budget, on time, worked hard, did a great job -- so what's the problem?"

Timothy Conway, who successfully represented the Builders Association of Greater Chicago in challenging the city's and county's minority and women participation rules, initially said he didn't think the county figures were that low. Subsequent calls to him and the group's vice president, Al Leitschuh, were not returned.

Maldonado said he'll push for a new ordinance for participation by minorities and women, because "fairness can't come without legislation."

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