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Garcia, Thomas, Alvarez want changes in process

Friday, May 10, 2002 by

The three minority members of the Austin City Council had a lot of questions this week about how construction and engineering contracts are awarded to ensure an acceptable percentage of minorities and women are included among the subcontractors. Aides to Mayor Gus Garcia and Council Members Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez continued to look for answers to those questions for most of the day Thursday, so that two contracts which might have been routinely approved on consent were put off to the end of the Council meeting.

Chasco Contracting of Round Rock won a $2 million contract to expand an overnight construction pad for airplanes at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Thomas asked Lino Rivera, director of the Department of Small & Minority Business Resources (DSMBR), to explain the difference between this contract and other city contracts. Rivera said since the contract is federally funded, the city must follow the federal guidelines, which are very similar, but not quite the same as the ones the city uses.

According to city documents, the goal for minority participation was 26.7 percent, but the firm came up with only eight percent minority subcontractors. Under questioning from Thomas, Rivera explained that Chasco received only 10 bids from minority contractors when it advertised for subs. Of those, seven were chosen. So, only three of the 10 who bid failed to win subcontracts. He added that the company made a good faith effort to comply with sub-goals, which only the city has.

Rivera reminded Council members that the contract was coming back after a re-bidding process. During the first bid period, he said, the top three bidders were found to be non-compliant with minority goals and all were rejected. Council Member Will Wynn said he thought a good faith effort had been made and moved for approval. The Council voted to award that contract to Chasco, 6-0-1, with Council Member Beverly Griffith off the dais.

Council members also had questions about the sixth amendment to a contract for engineers at Turner Collie & Braden (TCB). The firm was hired by the city in 1996 to design and oversee construction on expansion of the South Austin Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. After all is said and done, the contract will total an estimated $30 million for TCB.

Participation goals for this project, which were established in 1995, were 8.6 percent MBE and 18.2 percent WBE. Although overall sub-consultant participation for the project is 8.56 percent MBE and about 30 percent WBE, Council members wanted to know why the contract was coming back for its sixth amendment. More importantly, they wanted to know why TCB was not required to comply with the city’s newer regulations, which require that minority contract reporting be done by ethnic type.

Mayor Gus Garcia asked, “Why do we have that many amendments on a contract like this? Has the scope of work changed?”

Rivera said, “Going into the preliminary engineering design, we knew what we were going to do.” He explained that a previous Council had requested that large multi-task contracts be funded as the work progressed, rather than having the staff guess at the final cost. This process saves the city money and saves the staff embarrassment because they don’t have to make bad guesses about what a project will cost before preliminary engineering is done, several staff members explained.

Chris Lippe, director of the Water & Wastewater Department, told In Fact Daily that the method for awarding contracts changed about 10 years ago. Aides were also asking questions about why amendments were not referred to as change orders and whether the city had missed an opportunity to force contractors to use the more recently enacted sub-goals. Public works employees said that questions about the difference between change orders and amendments reflected the difference in language used for professional services contracts and construction contracts.

In response to questions from Alvarez, Rivera explained that TCB had selected its subs at the beginning of the project, six years ago. The Council approved the contract amendment unanimously, but it seems likely there will be a lot more discussion of minority goals before the end of the summer.

Linda Dailey, executive assistant to Thomas, told In Fact Daily that DSMBR, Rivera’s department, has been “dragging its feet,” in sending a new ordinance for awarding of contracts to the Council. Dailey pointed out that the Legislature approved a bill last year that allows municipalities to award contracts on a basis that does not make cost the most important factor. She said she informed DSMBR about the bill in August because the new law went into effect in September. She and her boss are clearly frustrated that more African-American contractors are not getting city work. Adana Barry, executive assistant to Garcia, said one of her specific assignments is to increase the number of African-American contractors working on city projects.

Wynn, Slusher dissent, saying city cannot meet wage formula

The Austin City Council yesterday agreed to add its voice to those calling for a flexible “living wage” to replace the current federally mandated minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. The living wage formula calls for locally set minimum wages linked to the cost of housing in each community ( http://www.universallivingwage.org). In Austin, that works out to $10.60 per hour.

Council Member Danny Thomas placed the item on the agenda. “We are not asking anything of this City Council that has an immediate fiscal impact,” said Richard Troxell, national chairman of the Universal Living Wage campaign. “We are not asking you to pass a universal living wage today. We are asking this city to send a message to the U.S. Congress that this city wants fiscal relief,” Troxell said, arguing that the city would not have to fund as many services for the homeless if the locally-adjustable minimum wage were adopted, since more of the working poor would be able to afford housing. “It costs the city nothing,” Troxell said. “It is the moral thing to do.” Although dozens of cities and government entities, like Austin, have adopted their own minimum wages in recent years that are well above the federal minimum, the sliding scale living wage for private-sector employees has been less popular. Business groups generally oppose a variable minimum wage and have compiled their own economic data in an attempt to combat the studies cited by living wage supporters ( http://www.epionline.org).

Council members indicated they agreed, in principle, with the concept of a living wage. But Council Members Will Wynn and Daryl Slusher had reservations about the language of the resolution. Wynn noted that the city did not pay the $10.60 per hour wage that would be required under the living wage formula. “My issue is that we, as a city, don’t meet the living wage,” Wynn said, “and it seems quite inconsistent for us as a major employer in this town to not do it, and then very easily just tell the federal government they should do it. On a personal level, I support the living-wage initiative . . . I just think it’s shallow and sort of hollow for us to not meet the standard ourselves and then tell the federal government we’re all in favor of everybody else meeting it.” Wynn did indicate he would be willing to consider a living wage for city employees during the upcoming budget discussion.

Slusher also had philosophical objections to the Council’s endorsement. “I, in general, like for us to concentrate on areas where we have a direct impact,” Slusher said. “That’s why I was a sponsor of getting the lowest wage the city pays to $9 an hour. I would like to take it further, but I don’t know if we’re going to be able to this year . . . We’re in a situation where we’re actually trying to protect having their jobs with the city.”

A living wage was suggested last year in the report from the Austin Equity Commission. (See In Fact Daily, July 19th, 2001) Currently, all permanent city workers are paid $9 per hour or more. However, seasonal workers can still be paid the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. City Manager Toby Futrell told Council members she did not have exact figures on the predicted impact of moving the minimum wage for city employees from $9 to $10.60. “I have a very, very, very rough cut at this,” Futrell said. “Out of ten-thousand regular, permanent employees only 647 make below $10.60 per hour.” But she also said that almost 1,500 “temp” employees were below that level. Boosting the temp and seasonal workers to the living wage level, Futrell estimated, would cost the city approximately $8 million. “It could be more,” she warned. “Whatever we choose to do, I would recommend that we allow a multi-year transition to it.”

The resolution passed by the Council does not commit to any pay hike now or in the future. Instead, it “endorses and supports” the living wage concept. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman added language to the resolution noting that Austin was not currently paying the living wage according to the formula, but was working toward the goal. The Council approved the motion on a vote of 5-2, with Council Members Wynn and Slusher opposed.

Troxell was pleased with the Council’s action. He expressed confidence that the Council’s opinion would help influence the national debate over the minimum wage. “We got what we wanted,” Troxell said. “This sends a message to the federal government that you need to fix the problem.” He plans to put a special link on the Universal Living Wage web site highlighting the city’s endorsement. Troxell said Austin is the first municipality to endorse the proposal.

Aquifer district meets today . . . The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board of directors will meet at 3pm today, saying good-bye to Board Member Don Turner, and swearing in new member David Carpenter. Board President Craig Smith will also take the oath for his new term in office. The meeting will be at the small district office, 1124 Regal Row. The board is also expected to announce selection of a new General Manager. For directions to the office call 282-8441 . . . Celebration of Beverly Griffith’s service to Austin . . . Friends and supporters of retiring Council Member Beverly Griffith will gather at her real estate/campaign office, 1206 W. 6th St. from 6-9pm Friday. Friends are encouraged to bring stories about their work with Griffith on the Council, the Parks & Recreation Board and/or as founder of the Parks Foundation. For more information, call Brandi Clark at 691-7961 . . . Mayor’s K-12 Committee to hold final hearing . . . Mayor Gus Garcia’ s committee on educational excellence has released its draft report on how the Austin ISD might improve education for youngsters in the school system, with emphasis on closing the performance gap between Anglo and minority students. Rafael Quintanilla, chair of the committee, said solving the problem would require that AISD honor and respect the cultural identities of minority students. The committee will hold its final hearing to get feedback on the report at 7pm Monday at Waller Creek Center. The report is also available online at http://www.CityofAustin.org/council/garcia.htm Paper copies are available at the city Public Information Office and in the Mayor’s office . . . Gentrification questions . . . Members of El Concilio and Poder came to the City Council yesterday to complain once more about gentrification in East Austin. In particular, Susana Almanza complained that rich white folks are buying up property and displacing the Hispanic families that have traditionally lived in historic homes. She implied that it would be okay for rich Hispanics to displace the poor. Gavino Fernandez complained about historic zoning driving up the cost of East Austin homes. Barbara Stocklin, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer, told the Council that 98 percent of historic zoning is owner-initiated. The other two percent occurs when the Historic Landmark Commission refuses to give its blessing to a demolition permit for a building that could be historic in nature. Last month, the commission thought it was doing the owner of a property on Haskell a favor by refusing to grant the demolition permit and asking city staff to investigate whether the property should be zoned historic. They took that action after El Concilio member José Quintero gave an angry speech about historic designations and people losing their homes. (See In Fact Daily, April 29, 2002) The commission has scheduled a public hearing on the fate of that house, at 2211 Haskell, for 6:30pm Monday. It seems likely that the commission will decide not to move forward with the historic zoning on that case . . . Seaholm decision postponed . . . At the urging of Council Member Daryl Slusher, the Council put off a decision on the Seaholm District Master Plan at least until its May 23rd meeting. Bicycle and pedestrian activists, along with representatives of the disabled rights group ADAPT, spoke on the various proposed alignments for extending the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge . . . Happy Anniversary! . . . Council Member Will Wynn received an unusual anniversary gift from his wife Anne Elizabeth during yesterday’s Council meeting. Thursday was the Wynn’s 10th anniversary, and two organizers of the Austin Poetry Slam ( http://www.austinslam.com) offered a poetry reading for the happy couple during the break for music and proclamations. Matthew John Conley and Mike Henry made a very noticeable entrance. The two men stormed into the room playing kazoos, honking bicycle horns and carrying signs reading “Congratulations!” before delivering their rapid-fire verse.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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