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Minority contracting sparks civil rights war

Sean Ryan

Harry Alford’s nationwide blitzkrieg of civil rights complaints on behalf of minority contractors should reach Wisconsin in about a month.

“I’m going to raise hell,” said Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

Alford said he will file with the U.S. Department of Justice a series of contracting complaints against state agencies that get federal money. He said his goal is to get more federal contracts directed toward minority-owned companies by increasing pressure on states to comply with civil rights rules.

And if the federal government agrees with Alford’s complaints, he said, states will feel the pinch.

“You can get your funds frozen,” he said, “and that’s what needs to happen. We’re going to make some examples.”

Alford is especially targeting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  In a Sept. 30 letter (PDF) to HUD and during testimony to Congress last week, Alford argued the agency does not enforce rules requiring contractors fill new positions on HUD projects with low-income residents and people living in public housing.

“Milwaukee is certainly in my cross hairs,” Alford said.

Federal hiring rules are a priority for the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, said Communications Coordinator Paul Williams. The authority has received $130 million through the HOPE VI construction program for projects and is applying for more HOPE VI money to redevelop the Westlawn housing project.

On Monday, Williams said, authority representatives discussed job opportunities on the project with people living in the neighborhood.

Williams said the federal rules apply only to new jobs that contractors create on HUD projects, and most builders do not hire additional workers on Milwaukee housing authority projects. Beyond that, many people living in housing authority buildings are single mothers who are not interested in the industry, he said.

“Construction doesn’t appear to be their first choice of work,” Williams said.

As Alford takes an aggressive approach toward housing programs, the National Association of Minority Contractors is focused on highway projects, said Tom Burse, owner of Buveck Consultants LLC, Milwaukee, and president of the association’s Wisconsin chapter. The group is pushing federal agencies to track how many minority-owned companies receive highway project contracts, he said.

Contracting set-asides for federal highway jobs target disadvantaged-business enterprises, which must be small but are not required to be minority-owned.

“Once we get the data pulled together, if there is a lopsided report, we would like legislators to see how they can offset that,” said Burse, who visited Washington, D.C., last week to lobby on the subject.

Burse said a starting point is the proposed federal transportation authorization bill (PDF) authored by U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn. The bill would require states give at least 10 percent of federal transportation construction money to DBEs. The current system does not set a minimum contracting requirement, Burse said.

“It would make (states) probably take more of a serious look at their program to see if they can get above 10 percent,” Burse said.

Even if Wisconsin is one of Alford’s targets for a civil rights complaint, Burse said, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is a national standout for including minority-owned companies.

“Wisconsin DOT is doing a great job,” Burse said. “But nationally, there’s state DOTs where their hands are tied one way or another.”

One comment

  1. We have a ‘National Black Chamber of Commerce?….why?

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