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Elmer Smith | Bulletin: Past time to get off 'apartheid' treadmill

A GROUP OF City Council members collared me after a Council meeting to fill me in on their scheme to force the city to increase minority participation in city contracts.

A GROUP OF City Council members collared me after a Council meeting to fill me in on their scheme to force the city to increase minority participation in city contracts.

They wanted to require general contractors to employ minority subcontractors and to increase opportunities for minority businessmen to bid as general contractors themselves.

They used terms like "disgrace" to describe a status quo in which less than 10 percent of all the money the city spent went to minority firms.

How much less, they couldn't say. City records did not include the race or gender of the business owners that the city dealt with. So Dr. Edward Robinson, then a deputy to Managing Director W. Wilson Goode, had his team pore over city records page by page to determine the race and gender of the contractors so that they could set a baseline.

Took months before they had enough data to set goals. I got the story into the next-to-last edition of The Bulletin.

Twenty-five years ago.

Not much has changed.

A study cited on the Minority Business Enterprise Council's Web site found that, by 2004, "less than two percent of Philadelphia contract dollars . . . had been spent with businesses owned and controlled by minorities or women."

By 2005, according to MBEC, about 14 percent of the contracts had gone to minority firms, including 5 percent of the prime contracts.

So, after two executive orders from the mayor, one from the governor and 25 years of lip service, we're not much further than we were in 1982.

If this were just about enriching a few minority or women entrepreneurs, it wouldn't be worth the effort. But we're squandering a chance to establish minority businesses that are more inclined to provide good-paying jobs for underemployed minority workers.

"They just do a better job recruiting minorities," City Controller Alan Butkovitz said.

Council took a step in the right direction by writing a project labor agreement for the $700 million Convention Center expansion. It has meaningful goals and real enforcement teeth.

It also has a better-than-50/50 chance of being approved by the construction labor unions.

"We won't be an impediment, if this is really about trying to make a difference and not just a political issue," Pat Gillespie, of the Building Trades Council, told me yesterday.

But making a difference is a political issue, one that Mayor Nutter will have to fight hard to resolve. His first step, Butkovitz argues, should be to dismantle MBEC and replace it with a Cabinet-level office that carries the mayor's enforcement hammer.

The next step should be to reduce the height of the hoops that contractors have to jump through to get paid for their work so that minority firms can bid.

"It takes 90 days for a contractor to get paid," Butkovitz told me. "Some minority firms could go bankrupt waiting to get paid."

There are some hopeful signs. Nutter seems determined to end what he calls "apartheid" on publicly financed construction sites. The percentage of pension board funds being invested by minority money-management firms has gone from 6 percent to 25 percent this year.

Technical-assistance centers (TAC) set up by the African American Chamber of Commerce have helped minority contractors win more than $100 million in bids for city business "in the last four or five years," TAC founder A. Bruce Crawley told me yesterday.

"We got them a financing package," he said. "They can go to United Bank and other banks for bridge loans of up to 70 percent of the contract value. It's the kind of financing they pay back as they get paid.

"Peter Longstreth, of Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, wants to expand it," Crawley added. "We need to look to these private firms to put project labor agreements into their union contracts, too.

"The city spent $5.2 billion last year. Census figures show that private firms did $111 billion worth of business here in 2006. That's where we need to concentrate some of our efforts."

Is it the right step?

Any step off the treadmill where we have been marking time for the last 25 years is a step in the right direction. *

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