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County raises worker standards on North Campus project

Thursday, April 14, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court handed the Workers Defense Project another victory on Tuesday in the organization’s quest to ensure better treatment for local construction workers.

In a 4-1 vote, the court approved a measure that will require the eventual developer of the county’s North Campus redevelopment project to adopt the WDP’s Better Builder standards.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was the only commissioner to oppose the item.

The Better Builder standards include provisions for living wages, workers compensation insurance, federal safety training, local hiring goals and independent on-site monitoring. The WDP has recently been aggressively lobbying public entities to leverage large development opportunities to entice private developers to adopt the standards.

The court recently made the standards a requisite for any contractor working on public improvement district, or PID, projects. More recently, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board considered requiring its private partner in the Plaza Saltillo project to adopt the standards but ultimately elected to let Endeavor Real Estate Group and its confederates hire their own on-site monitor.

That same option almost made it through the Commissioners Court on Tuesday. Early in the discussion, Commissioner Brigid Shea motioned to approve the staff recommendation. That recommendation would have modified the solicitation for development partners on the North Campus project on Airport Boulevard to include partially requiring the Better Builder standards. However, it would have allowed the developer to hire the on-site monitor.

Karen Thigpen of the Travis County Housing Finance Corporation, a nonprofit extension of county government, told the court that the project could end up being less expensive that way. She said that by virtue of dealing with monitoring companies on a regular basis, the developer would likely be positioned to negotiate a better deal.

“We haven’t done it before,” Thigpen said. “The cost savings may or may not be significant, but we’re not even allowing the developer to try and get those cost savings that could then be passed on to the bottom line of the project while still getting the same monitoring standards, if you don’t approve it the way it is.”

Bo Delp of the WDP explained to the court why his organization insists that the monitor be selected by someone other than the builder. “We have some serious concerns about the developer being allowed to choose their own monitor for the same reason that it’s probably not a good idea to allow Wall Street to pick their own enforcement or to allow a coal company to pick an EPA agent,” he said.

When pressed by County Judge Sarah Eckhardt to answer whether the WDP would prefer a developer-selected monitor that would be vetted by the county or no monitor at all, Delp responded, “It sets a dangerous precedent in this community to give the appearance of robust safety and wage protections for construction workers while allowing industry to regulate themselves.”

Eckhardt then offered to amend Shea’s motion to include language that would let the county put out bids for monitors rather than the developer. Both Shea and her second, Commissioner Margaret Gómez, gave the thumbs-up to Eckhardt’s proposal.

Just before the vote, Daugherty succinctly explained his opposition. “If we don’t know what the cost of this thing is, I mean, I’m not comfortable voting on it,” he said, before following through with the only nay on the dais.

Delp told the Austin Monitor that the vote was a “huge victory.”

“Travis County has demonstrated its commitment to working families in Central Texas by passing Better Builder standards not only on their public improvement districts, but now on the first of what is likely many ground leases in the county,” Delp said.

Indeed, the move sets a precedent for the court to require that Better Builder standards be adopted on future projects currently in the planning pipeline, including the construction of a new Central Booking Facility at 10th and San Antonio streets, the overhaul of the county jail in Del Valle and any future civil courthouse project.

Photo by Vhanepfu made available through a Creative Commons license.

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