Gov. David Paterson’s recent announcement that he will seek to repeal the anti-corruption statutes known collectively as the Wicks Law came as a shock to many of those concerned about government spending.
Just two weeks ago the governor railed against corruption in his State of the State speech and vowed to fight for tax relief. Why, then, at a time when our economy is suffering and everyone is screaming for lower taxes, would the governor propose a moratorium on one of the most effective, money-saving, anti-corruption statutes in New York? The reason may have more to do with garnering the support of those Wicks Law opponents that stand to gain from less transparency than with actually saving taxpayers’ money.
The bottom line for taxpayers concerned about government spending is easy to understand. Every credible study that examined actual construction projects shows that the Wicks Law saves taxpayers money, and the reason is simple: It increases competition and cuts out the middleman.
The Wicks Law requires that municipalities in Upstate New York doing construction in excess of $500,000 seek competitive bids directly from plumbing, electrical and HVAC contractors in addition to the general contractor. This means that four separate prime contracts are let directly by the municipality, without the middleman markup of having to go through a general contractor.
Under Wicks, every responsible contractor capable of doing the job can bid directly on the work. Small shops and upstarts have the same chance as the big guys because the lowest bidder gets the job. Specialty contractors keep their bids lean because they are doing business directly with the municipality, they know the terms up front and they don’t have to play the favorites game with the general contractor.
There is no middleman and no preferential treatment. All the bids are opened at the same time for all to see, and the specialty contractor with the sharpest pencil walks away with the job. That is the kind of competition that keeps costs low and saves taxpayers money.
Without Wicks, competition goes down dramatically and the costs go up, because only those specialty contractors willing to play ball with the general contractor are invited to bid. Without Wicks, the municipality hires from a small handful of general contractors who are responsible for subcontracting for the plumbing, electrical and HVAC work, based on their relationships with those specialty contractors. This is when the potential for corruption begins. When the door is closed and taxpayers can no longer keep an eye on where their money is being spent, you can bet that taxpayer protection is the last thing anyone will be discussing.
Some elected officials have described the Wicks Law as onerous, claiming that buying retail through a general contractor is easier than managing the competitive bidding process to get the wholesale price. Anyone in the private sector who has been required to get multiple bids as part of due diligence knows that sometimes the task can be onerous. Sometimes it is easier to just go with your pal’s company. Sometimes in the private sector there are very positive reasons to make purchasing decisions based on your relationships. But when government purchasing is relationship-driven, we start to get into a murky area where the cost and priorities of the taxpayer become secondary.
The Wicks Law was enacted to make sure that doesn’t happen. When unscrupulous contractors find they are shut out because they don’t have a relationship, you can bet some will try very hard to develop one. Wicks helps through transparency and competitive bidding to ensure that taxpayers are getting honest value for their money, that the job is done right and that corrupt politicians are not making backroom deals with contractors. If some elected officials find their job of spending taxpayers’ money in a transparent and cost-effective manner to be onerous, maybe they should look for another one.
Taxpayers and business owners throughout the state need to stand against the governor’s proposal to do away with the Wicks Law. We simply can’t afford the added costs and potential for corruption. Shady dealings won’t get our economy moving; they will only create a fight for the crumbs that are left.
When it comes to taxpayers’ money, let’s keep the competition up, the costs down and the cronies out.
Clarke Conde is director of the Rochester Building & Construction Trades Council.