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The truth about project labor agreements

While municipalities and the taxpayers who support them are struggling to find ways to make capital improvements in this time of shrinking budgets, Marci Miller and the Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. are busy trying to confuse the public about the legal tools that municipalities use to keep costs down. Her recent opinion piece in this paper about project labor agreements ("PLAs really are nothing more than handouts," RBJ, 2/4/11) is a classic example with few facts but plenty of bluster.

First, contrary to Miller’s opinion, it is illegal for any municipality to enter into a project labor agreement that does not save taxpayers a significant amount of money. Before a municipality can enter into a PLA, an independent study must be conducted on the specific proposed project. If that independent study says a PLA won’t save taxpayers money, then no amount of political interest can make a municipality enter into a PLA.

Maybe that is why the recent PLA for the county crime lab was approved unanimously by Republicans and Democrats alike in the often politically charged Monroe County Legislature. They came together to approve the PLA because the savings to taxpayers were clear. Is Miller accusing the entire legislature and Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks of breaking the law?

Second, despite what Miller has led readers to believe, it is also illegal to circumvent competitive bidding laws for public projects in New York. Any contractor, union or non-union, can bid on work under a PLA; moreover, projects that are bid under a PLA often have a greater number of bidders, union and non-union, than they would otherwise. In fact, a non-union contractor is building the new water treatment plant in Webster under a PLA right now. Has Miller even looked into what projects are being done locally under PLAs and who is performing them?

Finally, ignoring the fact that a municipality can’t actually implement a PLA if it doesn’t save taxpayers money, and that independent, project-specific studies are used to verify this, Miller cites "numerous third-party studies" that say PLAs raise the cost of a project roughly 18 percent, and then she drags out a discredited academic study to try to prove her point. Fortunately, everyone who is actually in the construction industry knows that labor accounts for around 25 percent of any project’s total cost. When it comes to construction, it looks as if Miller’s understanding of math is about as good as her understanding of New York law.

However, Miller is correct when she says that some contractors are effectively excluded from working under a PLA. Those contractors that make their living by bringing in undocumented workers, cheating on their taxes or using substandard materials find it very difficult to do so under a PLA. Personally, I don’t think those kinds of contractors should be working on anything anywhere, but that is just my opinion, and on this Miller’s opinion may legitimately differ.

David Young Jr. is president of the Rochester Building and Construction Trades Council.

To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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