The union workers that packed City Council chambers may have had an influence on a vote approving bids for the construction of a new 40th District Court building.
Dozens of union members packed City Hall for the Oct. 3 council meeting when bids for court construction were being discussed, upset that paying prevailing wage to workers was not a factor in the bids for general contractors.
“Ultimately, it is my call, my decision what’s included in bids,” City Manager Ben Hughes said. “I did authorize bid specs to go out that did not include the language that mandated that prevailing wage be used. I did not make that decision lightheartedly.”
Hughes and other members of the District Court Committee — council members Peter Rubino and Candice Rusie, and Community Development and Inspection Director Chris Rayes — worked with Stucky Vitale Architects, hired in June, to decide what needed to be included in the court and in specifications for the bid package. The cost of the project was not to exceed $3.5 million.
Hughes said with tight municipal budgets, he felt it was most important to be a good steward of the public’s money.
“Based on recommendations and some research, I determined that mandating prevailing wage would result in me bringing back bid results to this council that would be significantly more than $3.5 million,” he said.
Hughes recommended the city use Bernco Inc. of St. Clair Shores, which bid $3.55 million for the job, the lowest of the six bids. If Bernco required all its subcontractors to use prevailing wage, there would be an additional cost of $404,000 to the city.
The second lowest bidder, The Daily Co., bid $3.78 million, and said ensuring prevailing wages would likely add $220,000 to the bill.
But local tradespeople disagreed that the cost savings are worth it.
Bryan Stowe, of Madison Heights, is a builders representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58.
“We represent over 1,300 Macomb County residents, just under 200 of them reside in the city of St. Clair Shores,” Stowe said. “I know the middle class is dying because of this. A prevailing rate affords the middle class the opportunity to call a city like St. Clair Shores a home.”
He said without a prevailing wage, tradespeople couldn’t afford to buy homes, shop in stores or eat in restaurants in St. Clair Shores.
“The city economy will dissipate,” he said.
One of his members, Andrew Van Assche, is a lifelong resident of St. Clair Shores.
“You may save a buck now, but this is a courthouse that may be a landmark in the community,” he said. “I plan on still being a resident, and I’ll have to pay for your lack of foresight.
“I support a courthouse that my kids and grandkids can be proud of. I support a prevailing wage.”
And J.R. Kettler told council members that he grew up in Detroit, but was able to afford a home in St. Clair Shores because of the wages paid by his union.
“We got the top-notch training centers anywhere in the United States,” he said. “You want us to stay here or you want us to leave? I want to stay here. The only way I can stay here is if I can live here. I can’t live here if you don’t let me work.”
Hughes said that they plan to pay the cost of the court using $1.8 million already in the court building fund, then borrowing the remaining $1.7 million to $1.8 million using municipal bonds. Those would be paid with incoming money to the court building fund.
“I fully understand the comments tonight (but) I also have a responsibility to be a good steward of our public tax dollars,” Hughes said.
The total cost includes moving to and rent for a temporary space in the St. Gertrude Church school building on Jefferson Avenue.
John Vitale, a principal with Stucky Vitale Architects, said he is confident that the same safety guidelines will be used by the subcontractors on the job.
“These guidelines are very important and are … included in our specifications,” he said. “Any contractor that bids that work is required to follow that specification.”
Some council members agreed with union members’ arguments. Councilman Chris Vitale asked why the city would pay an additional $20,000 to begin construction in winter, but wouldn’t pay for contractors that paid a prevailing wage.
“If this budget is so razor thin,” he said, “maybe it’s not time for a courthouse.”
Councilman Ron Frederick agreed, but his motions to table or postpone a decision to inquire about getting union contractors or paying a prevailing wage, or to see if union companies could use target money to bring their bids inline with non-union businesses, failed by a 5-3 vote each time, with Vitale his only supporter.
Target money is a pool of money paid by union employees that is sometimes utilized by union contractors to make their bid more competitive with non-union bids.
“We’re bonding,” Frederick said. “Why can’t we spend $4 million? Why can’t we do this right?”
But Councilman Peter Rubino said just because a company is not union doesn’t mean it does shoddy work.
“I’m tired of people saying that my non-union friends are substandard just ‘cause they’re not in the union, just ‘cause they’re not prevailing wage,” he said. “What it really boils down to is, we’re in a horrible economy. A lot of people are unemployed. Do we want to not put people to work because we can’t afford a prevailing wage, or do we want to put people to work?
“That’s what it boils down to. We can’t afford the bids when it comes to prevailing wage.”
Bernco Inc. reported that approximately 30 percent of the value of its bid came from unionized labor.
Rubino made a motion, supported by Rusie, to award the contract to Bernco Inc. with the caveat that it go back and attempt to negotiate for target funds to get more union companies on its list of subcontractors. If that is not possible, the contract will still go to Bernco.
Hughes said he would report back on the progress of that request to City Council Oct. 15.
The motion passed 5-2, with Vitale and Frederick voting against it. Mayor Kip Walby said that the company he works for, described as a large conglomerate, does business with Bernco, but there was no reason he could not participate in the vote.