A normally routine item on the Syracuse Common Council’s agenda has revealed some cracks in the city’s requirement that contractors hire a certain percentage of minorities and women for their projects. The annual street maintenance project called the unimproved street slurry seal program seems to be falling short of preferred goals. The city typically shells out about a million dollars a year for a company to do the work on select side streets. Assistant corporation counsel Joe Barry says it’s put out to competitive bid, and the contract goes to what’s termed the lowest responsible bidder.
"As part of the bid specifications, in addition to insurance and bonding, we have our local MWBE [Minority and Women Business-owned Enterprise] ordinance requirement. In order to be a successful lowest responsible bidder, they have to submit a plan subject to our approval to meet those goals."
Those goals are 12 percent of the workforce on the project. Council president Helen Hudson says for years, the winning…and only…bidder has been Suit Kote, and they’re only meeting about half of the requirement.
"This is a company that comes from Cortland. So, already, they're coming from out of our jurisdiction to do the work in our city, but they're not employing folks that live in our city. That's a problem for me."
For this year’s slurry seal project, Suit Kote has committed to a 10 percent minority hiring goal. City administrators can choose to accept or reject the bid. But deputy mayor Sharon Owens says they may have only one choice:
"When you have a company that is the only bidder, and knows they're the only bidder, then it puts us between a rock and a hard place."
Owens says the city clearly has to seek other bidders, but otherwise agrees that contractors need to be held accountable. That introduces the challenge of enforcement. City attorney Joe Barry says the diversity office monitors compliance, but there’s otherwise no claw back provision since the contractor isn’t paid until they finish the work. He does add, however, that city officials do have the option to waive hiring requirements.
"If the contractor submits a plan, and the commissioner believes they made best efforts to comply, but because of availability of labor to meet the requirements, the commissioner can approve a lower percentage."
But president Hudson prefers the city hold contractors to the stated hiring goal, and wonders if contracts need to include more teeth. She says the lowest responsible bidder isn’t always the most accountable.
"Anybody looking to do business with the city, they have to understand there's a responsibility. You just can't come in, snatch the money and run. Everything ties in to the concentrated poverty. We're never going to get out of it unless we change the way we do business. As a municipality, we should be front and center leading the way."
Common councilors will consider approving 800-thousand dollars in bonds for the slurry seal project at their next meeting in two weeks.