Municipalities that haven't been paying the state-mandated prevailing wage rate for landscaping work could be facing higher labor costs this year, and several suburbs aren't happy about it.
"This is like a backdoor unfunded mandate," Mount Prospect Village Manager Michael Janonis said at a recent village board Committee-of-the-Whole meeting at which the impact of the prevailing wage requirement was discussed.
Janonis said the state could require tree and grounds maintenance contracts to follow the state's prevailing wage standards. For towns like Mount Prospect that are battling the emerald ash borer, that could put a significant dent in their public works budgets.
The state's prevailing wage legislation, which dates back to the 1940s, applies to public works projects. It requires that workers on those projects collect wages in line with those paid in the area for private work. The wages usually are set by the Illinois Department of Labor and typically are based on union rates.
Though some municipal officials may not have been aware of it, Illinois Department of Labor spokeswoman Anjali Julka said landscaping and other maintenance work paid for through public funds always has been included under the Prevailing Wage Act.
"In 2011, the Illinois Department of Labor had emphasized through a reminder on its website of the inclusion of landscaping in relation to public works projects, public funding and improvement of public property to help avoid any confusion and misinterpretation," Julka said.
For example, removal of trees on public property is automatically covered under the law, as is tree removal on private property when it is paid for through public funds, Julka said.
"All workers on projects covered by Illinois' Prevailing Wage Act are entitled to the prevailing wage. In the act, there are no exemptions on the classifications of workers or the types of workers," Julka said.
Over the years, it was understood that the law applied to construction work, as opposed to non-construction and maintenance work, said Sean Dorsey, Mount Prospect's director of public works.
But, Janonis said, "the noose has been tightening and tightening." He said that just last November, at a seminar attended by village staff, a state labor department representative said any job paid by public funds that requires a screwdriver, except for janitorial work, requires prevailing wages. The representative added that tree planting and removal work would require it because it "changes the landscape."
Dorsey told Mount Prospect trustees the impact on the village budget could require increases of 65 to 100 percent just to maintain existing levels of service. Contractual costs could increase by nearly $790,000.
"This latest initiative couldn't come at a worse time," Dorsey said, noting the emerald ash borer infestation as well as last summer's severe storms.
He said Illinois' law is one of the most confusing prevailing wage laws in the country, adding that court rulings have done little to clarify it.
Janonis said he suspects lobbying by unions has resulted in what he sees as a policy shift.
"It smacks of politics, and it shouldn't be that way," he said. "Everything apparently is subject to prevailing wages except custodial services. (But) I know a custodian uses a screwdriver in the normal course (of his duties)."
Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Larry Frang agreed with Janonis that the interpretation of the state's prevailing wage law has been expanded over time to include maintenance work.
The village is looking to resist the state's stance in part by lobbying the legislature through groups such as the Illinois Arborist Association, the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association, the Illinois Municipal League and the Northwest Municipal Conference.
"It's stuff like that that we're trying to get under control," said Larry Bury, policy director for the Northwest Municipal Conference, which represents 50 suburban governments. "There's not a bill out there right now to clarify or repeal this."
The state surveys and calculates prevailing wage for all 102 counties, and then municipalities typically adopt the state's figures by default.
Some towns are trying to pre-empt state law by enacting their own prevailing wage ordinances. While local governments are allowed to survey work within their jurisdiction and come up with their own salary rates, that can get expensive, Frang added.
Naperville has enacted such an ordinance and Mount Prospect has begun investigating whether to create its own ordinance on the basis of its home rule authority.
Mount Prospect village attorney George Wagner said the village would have to look into the cost associated with conducting its own survey of wages in the area. Meanwhile, running afoul of the law could result in misdemeanor charges against village employees and additional penalties incurred by the village, he said.