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Council OKs worker protections with expedited permit review

Friday, September 2, 2016 by Cate Malek

City Council acted to increase protections for construction workers and speed up the building permit process for some at last night’s meeting.

Council members strongly supported a proposal that would allow developers to pay an extra fee in order to pass through Austin’s building permit process more quickly. In exchange, developers must agree to pay their workers fairly and provide them with workers’ compensation and safety training, among other protections that labor advocates say are sorely lacking in the state of Texas.

After a short discussion, the proposal passed 9-1, with Council Member Don Zimmerman opposing, and Council Member Ellen Troxclair absent.

“There’s not much worth in having a booming economy if it’s only benefiting a few people,” said Council Member Greg Casar.

The proposal, which was spearheaded by the Workers Defense Project, will ask developers to work with independent monitors to ensure that they pay construction workers a living wage of $13 per hour, as well as provide OSHA 10 safety training and insurance to cover workers who have been injured on the job, along with other protections.

Although these requirements will add some coordination and cost to construction projects, advocates of the change say these are small compared to what companies could save by cutting time off of their permitting process. The permit system in Austin is widely seen as dysfunctional, taking developers upwards of six months to complete. With the new measure, companies would pay extra to have a designated team give them a permit in a few weeks or even days instead.

But although the proposal passed City Council with ease, it raised some controversy outside of City Hall. Shortly after the decision was announced, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce released a statement saying that the city had added “even more red tape” to an already difficult system. “It’s like the council sees the traffic jam, adds a toll lane, and then restricts applicants to a 5 mph speed limit, yet expects folks to use it.”

Although the proposal creates what some have called a “pay-to-play” system that will benefit the developers who can afford to pay the extra fee, Mayor Steve Adler said he hopes the new system will ease the pressure on the regular permit system as well. If some developers are paying for expedited permits, it will take some of the burden off of the city’s regular permit team, speeding up the process for everyone. And not having to wait for permits could save some companies significant holding costs, especially on bigger projects.

Rebecca Melançon of the Austin Independent Business Alliance said she wanted to make clear that she and her organization support workers’ rights without question. But she felt this proposal wasn’t the best path to secure those rights. She believes the proposal will hurt small businesses and that the supporters of the proposal were too aggressive with local businesses when they were advocating for the measure.

But City Council countered the opposition, saying that it plans to continue the conversation with small businesses over the next 60 days to ensure that the expedited permitting process benefits them, as well. Casar emphasized that the proposal was not designed to add an extra burden or more bureaucracy to the permitting process.

This proposal is unique in Texas. Dallas also has an expedited permit review team, but its expedited process includes no worker protections. Adler returned several times to the idea that this proposal should benefit two different communities, both workers and developers.

He said that the proposal is meant to support two elements, “both designed to contribute to the affordability of the city.” On one hand, the drawn-out permitting process has made building too expensive, which has increased the cost of housing, and the proposal should mitigate that cost. On the other hand, the proposal is meant to give workers more money to spend, making it more likely that they can afford to live in Austin.

“We need to make sure that we in this city do both of those things,” he said.

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