OGDENSBURG — A spokeswoman for the Empire State Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, along with two north country private contractors, have informed elected officials in Ogdensburg that they do not support using a Project Labor Agreement as part of the municipality’s $35 million wastewater treatment plant project.
Amanda Bertram, a spokeswoman for the state chapter of the national Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., told City Council this week that a pre-existing agreement with organized labor, known as a PLA, would not result in the financial savings and local job creation touted by union officials.
In addition to hearing from Ms. Bertram, the board received a presentation from Jeff Luck, of Luck Brothers Inc., of Plattsburgh. Mr. Luck said his company of 150 employees would be unlikely to bid on the city wastewater project if the municipality forces union compliance through a PLA. He said such an agreement would not benefit local taxpayers and instead would limit the number of so-called “merit based” companies like his own that would bid on the job.
The board also heard from St. Lawrence County businessman Lauris C. Kelly, president of Kelly Sales Corp., of Madrid. Mr. Kelly addressed the board in the form of a letter that was read by Ogdensburg City Clerk Kathleen Bouchard. In the correspondence, Mr. Kelly said his company has a proven local track record in the construction field, but would not bid on the Ogdensburg project if a PLA is put in place.
“I am writing this letter as the 4th generation president of Kelly Sales Corporation, a local contractor based in Madrid,” Mr. Kelly wrote. “We have routinely worked for the city through the years, both direct and as a subcontractor for others, at which time we pay the required prevailing wage rate.”
Mr. Kelly said over the years his firm has provided services for “most of the communities, major contractors and industrial clients throughout the north country region.”
“We will not bid on a project with a PLA,” he informed the Ogdensburg board. “It is unfair to my employees in the longer term. We pay our employees a fair wage, with benefits, for our normal workload.”
As an example, the Madrid businessman said when working on a prevailing wage job his carpenters make $48.78 an hour. That wage is comprised of $28.17 in a flat hourly rate, and another $20.12 in the cash equivalent of union benefits. He said that on a union job, the $20.12 would go into the union coffers instead of the pockets of laborers.
A Different View
The issue of hourly pay and benefits was also addressed by Ms. Bertram and Mr. Luck in their presentations to the City Council. The pair addressed the board separately following a similar presentation earlier this month by PLA proponent Timothy Seeler, of Seeler Engineering P.C.
Both Ms. Bertram and Mr. Luck said they hold a different view than that of Mr. Seeler when it comes to the benefits that a PLA can offer on a municipal construction job.
Mr. Seeler’s previous presentation to the board focused on what he said were multiple advantages of entering into a PLA. Mr. Seeler’s company has been involved with planning PLAs since the late 1990s. And he said the specialized labor agreements can be an effective tool in finding monetary and time savings involving large-scale construction. As such, he said his company could do a “due diligence” report, required as a precursor to implementation of a PLA under state law, for a cost of between $15,000 and $20,000.
But Mr. Luck of Plattsburgh told council on Monday that he has heard Mr. Seeler’s sales pitch on multiple occasions in the past. He suggested the study would be a waste of local tax dollars in Ogdensburg.
“I hope you haven’t spent the money, because that is expensive firewood,” Mr. Luck said. “One of those things to start your Christmas fire with. I’ll give you a new cover letter to put on the 10 documents I have in my office that say the same thing. I’ll give it to you for free. That’s your $15,000 project labor agreement.”
Mr. Luck said the Seeler engineering company and others like it have found a niche market selling their studies to municipalities at the behest of organized labor officials.
“This guy Seeler, and I am not going to be as nice as I usually have been, he’s made a great living selling these PLAs to cities like you,” Mr. Luck said. “He’s being paid by the union.”
Mr. Luck said he has approximately 150 employees and that he is competitive with union shops in project cost and in wages paid to workers — but only if he is afforded an opportunity to bid on projects where he can use his own labor force and not have to look for union workers from outside his shop to meet PLA mandates.
“The most important thing you need to remember is that most of these things are structured so that usually three quarters of a workforce has to come from a union,” Mr. Luck said. “I’m not going to do that. I’ve been a non-union contractor for 44 years. I’m not going to enter into something like that and eliminate all my employees to hire some union employees that I don’t know who they are, I don’t know what kind of work performance that they are going to give. I just don’t know.”
He added, “It’s a situation that no non-union contractor is ever comfortable with.”
Ms. Bertram, who began the Monday presentation to City Council, also cautioned Ogdensburg officials that it would be wise to do their own research before simply accepting claims that a union-led labor agreement will save money on the city’s $35 million wastewater job. She said many of the union claims are hard to quantify.
“I am a north country native, I grew up right down the street in Hammond, New York,” Ms. Bertram said. “Having grown up in St. Lawrence County, I understand the economics of this region, and how important it is to stretch the taxpayer dollars. So tonight I’m asking you to save your 15,000 or 20,000 dollars and allow every qualified contractor, including those right here in this region, to bid the job.”
Ms. Bertram said her association’s philosophy is that more bids on a job provide a greater diversity of choice for the municipality seeking to hire a contractor.
“I’m sure Mr. Seeler never talked about how a project labor agreement will eliminate 70 to 80 percent of qualified contractors, and impact the effect that would have on getting more competitive bids,” she said. “It’s really simple logic. Fewer bids leads to less competition.”
While city officials have made no decision yet on whether to move forward with a paid study on utilizing a project labor agreement, the clock continues to tick in relation to the project’s time line for completion.
City Manager Sarah Purdy said that because a portion of funding for the wastewater project comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development office, that funding organization has to approve the construction bidding process, and that review is underway.
The project’s time line currently is projected to have bid specifications and review completed by the end of January, and for the city to advertise for bids on Feb. 1.
If that occurs, Ms. Purdy said responses would be due by April 1, and a contract award made by April 15.
If those benchmarks are met, a projected start date of May 15 would be expected.
The overall $35 million project is expected to be completed over a two-year period.