The program, called IMAGE, would require all contractors doing business with the county to apply for certification by the federal government, documenting that they have no illegals on their payrolls.
The Board of Commissioners may vote on the topic Feb. 26.
Goreham believes requiring county contractors to be certified or to apply for such certification as proposed by Commissioners Bob Ott and JoAnn Birrell is too big a step to take immediately.
She suggests starting out with an incentive program that would award a certain amount of points to IMAGE-certified contractors or contractors who applied for such certification when they were bidding on a project for the county.
“Let’s not be punitive in the beginning,” Goreham said. “Let’s encourage best practices of IMAGE. Let’s dangle that carrot instead of beating them over the head with a stick.”
Goreham gave examples of what could happen if the county immediately required contractors to apply for IMAGE certification. She referenced the bridge that collapsed in east Cobb over a recent weekend. Fortunately, the county had a contractor working on another project that it could divert to fix the bridge.
“If we had to only do business with IMAGE certified contractors how do we address that?” Goreham said.
Or what happens if the county has another ice storm like it did two years ago in which it had to call in outside contractors to help plow the roads?
“We would have to make certain every one was IMAGE certified,” she said.
Goreham said such a requirement would cause the county to lose its competitive edge in the bid process, a concern previously raised by county chairman Tim Lee. What if a potential bidder believes the certification process is too difficult and decides not to bid?
“What that ultimately would do is raise the cost of the job and perhaps dilute the pool of qualified individuals, so we don’t want to back into that corner, too,” she said.
Originally, Goreham said the proposed code change was to require all contractors to be IMAGE certified. Now the wording has changed to require contractors to sign an affidavit that they are in the process of becoming IMAGE certified.
The county government applied for its own IMAGE certification last year and has yet to become certified.
“It’s taken approximately 450 administrative hours to do the paperwork,” she said, adding that little has been accomplished in the way of finding illegal workers.
“Not one has turned up,” she said.
The county’s HR director, Tony Hagler, said he estimates the county has spent between 450 and 500 hours on the application for IMAGE certification. Hagler said the bulk of the time was spent conducting a self audit of the county’s I-9 forms for all active employees. That process was recommended by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement before the application was submitted.
The self audit included training staff to conduct the audit, pulling I-9 forms from personnel files, auditing the forms, then making the necessary corrections, he said. That process was completed by the end of April 2012 when the county submitted its application for IMAGE certification, Hagler said. In May 2012, ICE notified the county it was ready to proceed with the application agreement, a step approved by the Board of Commissioners that month.
The agreement called for an audit of I-9 forms to be completed by ICE. These forms were provided to ICE in June 2012. In December, 2012 the county received notification from ICE that their audit had been completed, and they provided Cobb with a number of forms that had to be revised. This was accomplished by mid-January 2013.
“We received a final set of about 50 to 60 additional forms about a week ago to revise,” Hagler said. “We expect to have those completed with those employees and returned to ICE by early next week.”
Goreham said while immigration activist D.A. King of the Dustin Inman Society claims there is no cost to becoming IMAGE certified, those 450 administrative hours have cost the county.
In rolling out the new ordinance change, it’s important to consider the companies that the county does business with, Goreham said.
“You’re going to say ‘road contractors’ and everyone’s screaming that they’ve got illegals on that, but let’s look in the less obvious areas,” she said, citing food companies that provide food to the county jail.
“If they think it’s not worth their while financially to go into the process, we could go up a creek,” she said.
Or, consider local hospitals such as WellStar Health System, she said, who provide medical service to the county.
She said she didn’t want to “be like Congress,” which reacts in a kneejerk way to satisfy a political base, often without even reading the legislation before voting.
“So that’s the reason why I’m cautious,” she said. “I’m looking at the business side from Cobb County government doing business. I don’t want to be like Congress. I want to do my job. I want to do my research up front. I want to approve a good piece of legislation.”
And if in the future it turns out the county needs a stricter ordinance, it can always adopt one, she said.
Goreham pointed out that Cobb is the only county in Georgia that has applied for IMAGE certification. And while Cobb prides itself on being a leader rather than a follower, the issue is more than just about being “first out of the chute.”
“We pride ourselves on that too much all the time, and it’s good, and that’s why Cobb is the way it is, but we’re starting to get out there and have to pet some rattlesnakes, and you have to be very cautious or pragmatic, as I am,” she said.
Goreham emphasized that her position in IMAGE has not changed, and that she continues to support American jobs for American workers. But she is worried about possible unintended consequences of the program.
“If this ordinance in its final form proves to me that there will be unintended consequences, that it will make it very difficult for Cobb County government to conduct business, that my citizens stand to not be served in the way that they should, or it should jeopardize safety, then I’m not going to vote for it,” she said.
IMAGE, or ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers, is a voluntary partnership initiative between the federal government and private-sector employers. ICE developed the initiative as a way for employers to achieve a “lawful work force” through self-policing of their hiring practices.