Updated: 19 May 2015 11:04 PM
Dallas County commissioners voted Tuesday to extend two janitorial contracts despite low pay for workers but said they’ll continue to look for ways to boost wages.
The extensions allow Dallas County to step up its cleaning routine in buildings that have had problems with overflowing trash cans, dirty toilets and rats. They also give the county time to prepare new bid specifications that would allow commissioners to weigh a variety of factors, not just cost, in awarding the contracts.
The new requirements could indirectly lead to higher wages for janitors, County Judge Clay Jenkins said. No Dallas County employees earn less than $10 an hour, but janitors and others who work for private contractors often receive the $7.25 minimum wage or close to it.
A group of more than 20 Dallas County judges urged commissioners to support higher wages for janitors in a letter written by state District Judge Ken Molberg.
“Each of us is hopeful that any revision of the cleaning services contract will provide an opportunity for the county to address the low wages paid to the people who clean up behind us,” the letter read.
Five people asked commissioners Tuesday to set an example for local companies by requiring higher wages for contract workers. One speaker, who said he struggles to pay bills and afford groceries, was still dressed in a Wal-Mart vest.
The contract extensions, which will cost more than $100,000, will increase the frequency of cleaning to five nights a week in the Health and Human Services Building and the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences, which houses the medical examiner’s office.
The county five years ago cut back janitorial services to three nights a week to save money.
Additional contract extensions are expected in coming months to increase cleaning frequency in other county buildings.
Four commissioners voted to extend the contracts. Jenkins abstained on the short-term extension and voted against the other, saying he objects to the low wages.
For more than two decades, Dallas County’s purchasing department has considered cost the primary factor when hiring cleaning crews, said Gloria McCulloch, the county’s interim purchasing agent. At the court’s direction, the county could put out a different type of bid called a “request for proposal” that would allow the county to consider other qualifications such as turnover rate or training.
Jenkins began pushing last year for Dallas County to require an hourly wage of at least $10 for contract workers, but then-Attorney General Greg Abbott said local jurisdictions can’t establish their own minimum-wage requirements.
The wage issue resurfaced last week when commissioners were briefed on the contract extensions.
Commissioner Mike Cantrell requested legal advice from the Dallas County district attorney’s office. Russell Roden, who oversees the civil division, told commissioners Tuesday that the county cannot include a minimum wage in a bid or consider wage a factor.
“A governmental body may not take a bidder’s social responsibility into account when evaluating that bidder’s responsibility, nor can the county use the procurement process to remedy seemingly intractable social problems and promote general social policies, however laudable those policies might be,” he said.
The law requires Dallas County to take “the lowest and best offer for the benefit of the taxpayers,” he said.