Communities of color in New York City heavily rely on public infrastructure, whether it’s the student who needs the library for internet access, the senior citizen who depends on the senior center for social connections, the Black business owner in need of city work to grow their business, or the family waiting for their neighborhood playground to get a comfort station.
For far too long, we have accepted that constructing or improving our parks, community centers, and libraries is slow and expensive, that improvements will get done eventually, that the unwieldy bureaucracy reigns supreme. This must stop now.
Changing the way our local government builds things isn’t flashy, yet billions of taxpayer dollars are expended each year that make an incredible difference in the daily lives of New Yorkers. That’s why we care about a reform effort undertaken by a task force convened by Mayor Adams and made up of diverse leaders from labor, the Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (M/WBE) community, and the construction industry.
The Capital Process Reform Task Force rolled up its sleeves and developed 39 recommendations (nine of which require state legislation) that, taken together, will cut years off capital projects and save tens of millions of dollars each year.
But building faster and cheaper does not a successful reform effort make. We must ensure opportunity for our disadvantaged businesses, which a number of the task force’s key recommendations address. We should increase the threshold under which the city can use a streamlined procurement process if hiring M/WBEs. The city should be able to build a centralized mentorship program akin to successful programs at the School Construction Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that pair capacity-building support with contracting opportunities.
We must also address insurance, a significant barrier for M/WBEs and small contractors which often struggle to find competitive, affordable insurance options. High insurance premiums make these businesses less competitive, because they pass along increased costs to public owners in the form of higher bid prices.
The city should be able to use owner-controlled insurance programs and contractor-controlled insurance Programs, which are comprehensive wrap-up insurance programs common in both private and public sector construction projects. These programs create safe worksites with clear safety standards while eliminating a major barrier to entry for M/WBEs.
The task force additionally recommended creating a New York State Insurance Fund pilot program to provide an additional insurance option for M/WBEs and small contractors. Additionally, the task force also recommends allowing the city to use alternative project delivery methods, which we know can increase M/WBE usage while also delivering far faster results for communities. For example, during the COVID emergency, when the city temporarily had access to many of these essential tools, the Department of Design and Construction built COVID testing sites in an average of seven days with 55% M/WBE utilization and built three permanent health care facilities in an average of 192 days with 46% M/WBE utilization.
The state budget process is upon us, and this is our window of opportunity to act on the task force’s recommended nine state legislative proposals so that outside of an emergency context, the city can use tools that we know work well and simultaneously invest in M/WBEs. Reforming the capital process will improve the lives of all New Yorkers — but will have an even greater impact in communities of color. This is not only because our communities are disproportionately dependent on public works, but also because the reforms will level the playing field for M/WBEs.
Let’s make this the moment when we committed ourselves to providing real opportunities for M/WBEs while delivering world-class facilities and infrastructure to our communities. This suite of proposals may not be grabbing the headlines or discussed at the dinner table, but their impact will be felt by the communities we represent, who have had to wait too long for our government to deliver.
Dukes is president of the NAACP New York State Conference.