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updated: 1/14/2014 10:13 AM

State law sparks union, partisan debate in Kane County

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Political partisan déjà vu regarding a pending expansion of the state's Prevailing Wage Act happened Thursday in Kane County, pitting union members against nonunion contractors.

Seven months ago, a plan to force would-be county contractors to participate in training and apprenticeship programs approved by the U.S. Department of Labor brought a rare, partisan debate to the Kane County Board. Democrats pitched it as providing standardized training and quality of workmanship to local projects. Republicans saw the move as forcing union labor on the county.

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The GOP members of the board, led by nonunion contractor Drew Frasz, united to reject the provision by a single vote.

Now a nearly identical issue threatens to rekindle that tense debate on the Kane County Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners. County board members also serve as forest commissioners.

On Thursday, district staff members pitched a resolution to commissioners calling for state lawmakers to reject HB 924. The bill would amend the state's Prevailing Wage Act to require contractors to meet "responsible bidder" standards under the Illinois Procurement Code. Those standards include having those same apprenticeship and training programs the county board rejected in June.

The Illinois Association of Park Districts, of which the forest preserve is a member, is lobbying against the bill "because it would impose standards that many small businesses may be unable to satisfy," according to a November legislative bulletin put out by the association. "Applying this standard to local government contracts would ultimately reduce the number of eligible bidders, particularly on smaller projects, which may increase labor costs," the bulletin reads.

Several Kane County union members and Kane County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Guethle showed up at an Executive Committee meeting of the forest commission Thursday to refute those points.

Kara Principe, an attorney for the Indiana, Illinois, Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, argued the bill is neutral on contractors being union or nonunion.

"This will help promote objective and standardized training throughout the industry," Principe said. "Doctors, lawyers and engineers are all required to have standardized, objective training and testing. But when it comes to construction, we seem to forget how to determine who is trained or not, who is qualified or not."

Principe's foundation has several union representatives on its board of trustees, including its chairman, David Fagan of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Forest district President John Hoscheit said he didn't buy Principe's argument.

"In (Principe's) comments, there was innuendo that this is not union versus nonunion," Hoscheit said. "As a practical reality, with these additional requirements, it would limit the number of bidders we have for our projects. There are very few nonunion contractors who have these apprenticeship programs."

The district already abides by the state's existing Prevailing Wage Act, which provides a guaranteed hourly wage rate for contract labor in several areas of its operations. The House bill would expand the types of jobs covered by the prevailing wage. However, there was disagreement among forest commissioners about exactly what kinds of work the bill addresses. As a result, Democrats successfully tabled the debate for one month to allow staff members to research the issue.

Guethle was not allowed to speak at the meeting. Afterward, he said forest preserve district staff members appear to be misinformed about the consequences of the House bill.

"There's no data that it would raise costs or push away contractors," Guethle said. "At its core, this is a transparency measure. There is training for everything else; why not this? What's really going on here, what they really want to do, is get rid of the Prevailing Wage Act."

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