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Commissioners still pondering prevailing wage questions

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 by Mark Richardson

Travis County Commissioners found themselves in the middle of tug-of-war Tuesday over proposed policy changes to the county’s Economic Development and Construction Procurement Practices. The issue of the county requiring a prevailing wage of $11 per hour for all construction done with county money sparked an extended debate.


The Travis County Economic Development Task Force presented its report to Commissioners in August for changes to the way the county handles economic incentive agreements. Commissioners were reviewing the elements of the report Tuesday in advance of a voting session planned for Friday. The City of Austin approved a similar plan for its economic development incentive program. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 25, 2013.)


Members of the task force were named by County Commissioners in April. Though the panel had members on both sides of the political spectrum, its recommendations leaned heavily toward worker protections.


The task force’s recommendations for companies making an economic development agreement with the county included: Requiring OSHA-trained safety officers to be on all worksites; Providing a 10 percent bonus to contractors if 15 percent of its construction workers are economically disadvantaged or 10 percent are veterans; Requiring all HUB regulations be followed; Requiring all companies to carry workers compensation insurance for construction workers; and requiring companies in an economic development agreement to pay a living wage of at least $11 an hour to its construction workers.


However, the task force was divided over the issue of assigning an $11 prevailing wage to all construction projects that involved county money, not just those under economic incentive plans. The panel had endorsed the living wage proposal, but only backed the prevailing wage issue on a 6-4 vote.


The majority of the task force supported the notion that Travis County should change its economic incentive policies to allow local workers, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged or are veterans, to share in the growth of the economy by making a living wage.


Task force member Bob Batlan with Austin Interfaith said that requiring companies to pay a prevailing wage would keep wages from falling despite a strong economy.


“We believe that the living wage principles should be accepted, requiring companies in an economic development agreement to pay a living wage of at least $11 to its construction workers.” Batlan said. “Prevailing wages are based on surveys of all area jobs. Any job paying below the prevailing wage is input to future surveys, and contributes to lowering wages in the future. Austin Interfaith feels that it is a misapplication of tax dollars to provide incentives to companies that not only undercut the market on their own projects, but also lower the wage standards for unrelated future projects.”


However, another task force member, Dave Porter with the Austin Chamber of Commerce, told the court, “We recommend you keep the living wage at $11 and all the other things the task force approved, except for the prevailing wage . . . The thing we were looking at is making the prevailing wage a bonus, like the veterans. Our suggestion would be to have $11 as a living wage for all jobs – including construction – but if somebody came in and paid $11 as a prevailing wage, they could get an incentive from Travis County,”


Assistant County Attorney Tenley Aldredge said while it was perfectly legal to require companies operating under an economic development agreement to pay construction workers a living wage, it was not legal to require companies working on county-funded projects to pay a prevailing wage. It was, however, perfectly legal to pay them an incentive for paying a prevailing wage, she said.


Other than both sides laying out their positions on the prevailing wage controversy, little was accomplished Tuesday. Travis County Commissioners will take up the task force’s report in a special called meeting Friday morning, called to avoid meeting Tuesday, Dec. 24, which is Christmas Eve.

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