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African-American businesses’ slice of city contracts jumps to 21%

Chicago Alderman Carrie Austher office 507 W. 111th St. Friday August 17 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Chicago Alderman Carrie Austin in her office at 507 W. 111th St., Friday, August 17, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 21, 2012 6:07AM

African-American businesses got 21 percent of the $1.2 billion in city contracts awarded through Aug. 31, compared with just 8 percent during the same period a year ago, putting out a perennial political firestorm.

Every year, the Department of Procurement Services gets hammered during budget hearings by African-American aldermen furious about the city’s dismal black contracting numbers.

No matter who the chief procurement officer is — and it’s been a revolving door — the numbers never seem to climb out of the single digits.

The reception for the testimony before aldermen by Chief Procurement Officer Jamie Rhee on Friday was warmer.

Although the black contracting surge sounds too good to be true, Rhee said it’s a product of the mayor’s decision to reform the scandal-scarred minority business program, return certification and compliance to the Department of Procurement Services and “really get out there and aggressively talk to people” about upcoming opportunities.

“The city historically did not have a buying plan, which forecasted what we were gonna be purchasing over the next year. We’ve updated that now three times under Mayor Emanuel. Every quarter, we go out and make sure people have those opportunities in advance,” she said.

“What is very important, especially for smaller firms, is that they have adequate time to prepare for bids. When you don’t have a published plan, they’re reading about it in the paper and having to scramble. Some of the larger firms have a whole wing of folks to prepare a bid. Small businesses, especially minority- and women- owned business, kind of have to drop everything and try to put a bid together.”

Pressed to explain the drop for Hispanic contractors, she said, “Every year, there’s so much contracting and we do low-bid. I always say, every time I open a bid, I’ve got one very happy person and I’ve got four or five that are unhappy and I’ve got subs underneath of that. All of that goes into that participation.”

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee, credited Mayor Rahm Emanuel for delivering for black voters who helped put him in office.

Through the first eight months of this year, the city spent $1.2 billion on goods and services and awarded $193 million of those contracts to companies owned by African-Americans. That’s a 21 percent piece of the pie, compared with $96 million and 8 percent during the same period a year ago.

Some of the black gains apparently came at the expense of Hispanics and “non-minority” women.

Hispanics got $118 million or 13 percent of city spending, compared with $201 million or 16 percent a year ago. Companies owned by white women got $26 million or 3 percent, down from 5 percent and $14 million through Aug. 31, 2011.

Asian-Americans held steady at a 4 percent share of city contracts, but it translated into $35 million, compared with $52 million a year ago.

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