Hiring for other major DC Water projects follows a similar pattern: Of 240 hired on contracts to complete a nitrogen-removal system at the Blue Plains sewage-treatment plant, eight live in the District. On an $81 million project to build a power plant at Blue Plains, three of 175 employees live in the District; 48 are Missouri residents, and 47 live in North Carolina.
DC Water is not alone. Other city agencies have undertaken major public-works projects that did not create significant numbers of jobs for D.C. residents, even as lawmakers tried to boost local hiring by providing carrots and sticks.
But the Washington Interfaith Network, a federation of 48 churches that focuses on affordable housing and unemployment, said that DC Water needs to do a better job of keeping money in the city that residents spend on ever-rising water bills.
The DC Water figures are more discouraging because the work is being done in a part of the city with the greatest need for jobs, said the Rev. Kelly D. Wilkins, minister of social justice at Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ. According to city figures for February, the unemployment rate was 21.6 percent in Ward 8, where Blue Plains is located.
“We have the highest unemployment in the District,” Wilkins said, referring to Ward 8. “In a city where we have so much wealth, and where D.C. residents are investing so much money, how are we not getting investment back in our community?”
Last month, more than 800 WIN members assembled at Temple Sinai in Northwest Washington to demand action from D.C. Council members. On Wednesday night, capping a series of demonstrations at DC Water town hall meetings, WIN members packed a downtown hearing on a proposed water rate increase, demanding that the utility’s board commit to a jobs plan and other community benefits before raising rates again.
“Shame on you, DC Water,” Wilkins told the board. “We’re not paying for something if we’re not being invested in.”
City and utility officials say that they are sympathetic to WIN’s demands and that they, too, want more city residents to find employment opportunities through the utility, which is planning to spend $3.8 billion on capital improvements over the next decade. But they say hiring goals are complicated by federal contracting rules and the utility’s regional governance. Also, they say, the specialized nature of the work means that relatively unskilled local workers aren’t good candidates.
“There’s no disagreement that we have to do something,” said George S. Hawkins, DC Water’s general manager. “It’s almost like a conflict or a battle where there’s no opposing side.”