The Metropolitan District Commission's Clean Water Project has been underway for five years. It is essential to the environment and well-being of the region. It would be crazy to stop it now.
Residents of the eight MDC member towns — Bloomfield, East Hartford, Hartford, Newington, Rocky Hill, Wethersfield, Windsor and West Hartford — will vote Nov. 6 on whether to authorize $800 million for Phase 2 of the 15-year, $2.1 billion project. They should vote Yes.
The project will modernize the area's antiquated sewer system, which will vastly reduce pollution in local streams, the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound, and eliminate sewage backups into residential basements, a homeowner's nightmare and potential health hazard.
There also is a compelling financial reason to approve the referendum. The project is going to happen — state and federal court orders mandate it — the question is who pays for it. More than half the cost is expected to come from state and federal funds, with the balance coming from bonds paid for through a special sewer service charge adopted five years ago.
If the referendum is rejected, the MDC will not be able to sell bonds, and will have to go to the towns for the funds. This would not only be a prohibitive expense, it would let large tax-exempt institutional water users such as colleges and hospitals off the hook, which would not be fair. The referendum for the $800 million first phase was approved overwhelmingly in 2006, this one should be, as well.
The only contentious issue around the project is whether minorities, minority-owned contractors and Hartford residents are adequately represented in the project's workforce. "Our guys are not getting a fair share," said Rufus Wells, acting executive director of the Greater Hartford Minority Construction Council. His organization and two others have been demonstrating in front of the MDC for more than a year
On minority hiring, 28 percent of the 2,441 workers who have participated in the project thus far are minorities, and they have done 30 percent of the work hours, according to the MDC's data.
The record is not as good for city residents or minority contractors. Of about 1,000 workers on the project today, 87 are Hartford residents. Of 38 prime contractors who've worked on the project thus far, five are minority-owned and six are owned by women. The percentages of subcontractors are slightly better.
MDC officials do not appear to be purposely limiting minority and resident participation; indeed have steps to increase workforce diversity. But their efforts are stymied by regulation and circumstance. For example, they must accept the lowest responsible bids, and many low-bidders are out-of-state contractors, who bring their own workers because much of the work is technical and many local firms are skilled in vertical, not horizontal, construction. The largest minority-owned firm on the job is a tunneling contractor from New Jersey.
The state's prequalification process, required for contractors using state funds of more than $500,000, appears to be a stumbling block for some minority contractors. The principle is sound — contractors using public funds must show they have the capacity and experience to work on public projects. But Mr. Wells said the requirement should apply to prime contractors, not subs. "How can you grow a company if you can't do a job bigger than $500,000?"
Hartford has the highest unemployment rate — 17.8 percent — in the state. The city is desperate for jobs. This is a $2.1 billion project. The MDC, the unions and city and state officials need to find ways — such as more training or joint venture arrangements — to get more local and minority firms on the job.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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