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Going Through the Motions

We attend city council so you don't have to (June 19 and 20)

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For women and minorities, Pittsburgh political promises have been as worthless as 2007 Pirates World Series tickets.

The city's inability to award public contracts to women and minority-owned businesses has been a serious point of embarrassment for years. The number of promises tossed out to fix the problem is enough to fill up the two North Side stadiums ... stadiums which, by the way, were built with far fewer minority- and women-owned contracting firms than originally promised.

So you can imagine when something is actually done to solve a problem -- rather than just pointing it out for the millionth time -- your intrepid correspondent tends to get a little excited.

Phil Petite, manager of the city's Equal Opportunity Review Commission, came to Pittsburgh City Council June 20 looking for authorization to implement a "sheltered markets" program. The program takes large contracts that would normally be won by large contractors -- most of which are not owned by women and minorities -- and breaks them down into smaller contracts that minority-owned firms can manage.

For example, if the city is building a structure, worth $100 million, rather than giving the project to one prime contractor who will then hire subcontractors to do projects like plumbing and electrical, the plumbing and electrical would become separate contracts.

The main difference between being a prime contractor and a sub, Petite says, has to do with accountability and control. Instead of the subcontractor relying on the prime contractor to pay him or her, they are now dealing directly with the city. It also means more smaller and minority- and women-owned businesses are going to get a shot at government contracts.

"This will improve the quality of service because the city now has total control over this contractor and this smaller contractor knows they are getting paid directly from us and not relying on the prime contractor," Petite says. "Instead of always being a subcontractor, these businesses can actually be awarded the contract." Petite continues, "This is a program that is a long time coming and very much needed." Councilor Tonya Payne says oftentimes small businesses want to bid as the prime contractor, but don't have the capacity to do so. "It's really about fundamental fairness," she said.

The program has been in limbo for about two years, originally brought forward by councilors Bill Peduto and Twanda Carlisle in 2005. However, Petite says a lot of projects started moving slowly under Act 47 and then the director was hit with a serious illness that kept him out of work until October 2006. On June 20, council approved spending $45,000 to put out a bid to find a firm to put the program together. In addition, Petite says his office will also put together a resource guide so contractors know the rules and procedures for bidding on city projects.

Petite said he hopes to have the program fully functional by the end of the summer.

"With the casino, new arena and other projects we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in development," Petite says. "We can't continue to allow the problem of women- and minority-owned businesses having to fight for these contracts."

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