2 council members call on D.C. Water to boost hiring of city residents

Two District lawmakers are pressing the city’s water utility to do a better job in hiring D.C. residents on coming projects totaling billions of dollars.

D.C. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said they will introduce a bill Tuesday that would order the D.C. Water board of directors to consider requiring District residents to perform at least 30 percent of the work hours on the utility’s largest capital projects.

The bill comes after a concerted campaign from the Washington Interfaith Network, an alliance of 48 city churches, demanding that officials make sure the utility’s projects do more to benefit the residents who are paying the bills.

“District residents pay billions of dollars to D.C. Water, and we need to have more District residents getting jobs,” McDuffie said.

Because D.C. Water is governed by a regional board that cannot be compelled to act by any one of its member jurisdictions, the council bill stops short of mandating the hiring goals — only ordering that the board “consider” them. But board Chairman Allen Y. Lew, who also serves as city administrator, has expressed support for increasing local hiring. And on Monday, four board nominees told a council committee that they would make local hiring a priority.

Also Tuesday, the nonprofit group Good Jobs First is set to release a report commissioned by the interfaith network and the Laborers’ International Union of North America saying that the primary funding mechanism for D.C. Water’s most ambitious undertaking — the $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project — is “highly regressive” and has a “disproportionate impact on low-income residents and communities.”

The project, planned to involve building massive tunnels to hold sewage in order to prevent overflows into waterways, is being funded mainly by an “impervious areas charge” on water bills.

The rise in water rates because of the charge is equivalent to a 5 percent rise in property taxes for middle-class homeowners, the report says.

“There is no indication that District residents will benefit in proportion to their burden,” reads the report, noting that many workers are from well outside the Washington area. “Continued failure to hire local residents will result in a massive transfer of wealth out of the District.”

John Lisle, a D.C. Water spokesman, noted that the rising water rates are paying for projects mandated by federal law or court-enforced agreements and that the utility has programs to help low-income customers.

D.C. Water, Lisle said, is “formulating a plan” to boost local hiring. He expressed concerns about the council bill, noting that the utility’s projects often require specialized and technical workers, making it difficult to meet hiring goals that might be appropriate for more general construction projects.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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