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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Council passes public works project apprentice requirement

Almost 200 people packed the Spokane City Council chambers and Chase Gallery on Monday night for the council’s final meeting of the year. Most of them came to support an ordinance put forth by Council President Ben Stuckart mandating that a certain amount of work on public works construction projects be performed by apprentices.

The measure passed in a veto-proof 5-2 vote after hours of testimony. It will “create a more skilled workforce” in Spokane, Stuckart said.

Citing work on hundreds of millions of dollars in public works projects in the city’s near future, including work on the voter-approved street levy and Riverfront Park bond, as well as projects to prevent pollutants from entering the Spokane River, Stuckart said it was the city’s responsibility to promote worker training as a “participant in the marketplace. The city of Spokane is not just a regulator.”

The issue galvanized supporters and detractors. Along with a small minority of those who spoke, Councilmen Mike Allen and Mike Fagan opposed Stuckart’s bill. Allen said he was “challenged” by the ordinance and warned that it would have “unintended consequences” such as taking jobs away from skilled workers in favor of young, unskilled trainees.

Fagan was more blunt, saying the council had “stiff-armed” and “steamrolled” employers who opposed the bill.

“I didn’t hear anybody justify why this is OK to make this mandatory … (or) penalize people on this,” he said.

Still, of the 35 people who testified, 26 were in favor of the “Public Works Apprentice Program,” which would require that public works projects over $350,000 use apprentices for an increasing percentage of labor hours beginning next year. The law goes into effect July 1, when the city will require apprentices to make up 5 percent of labor hours on public works projects. In 2016, the requirement jumps to 10 percent, and to 15 percent the following year.

Penalties can be assessed against contractors that violate the apprenticeship law, but waivers to the requirement can be granted by the city’s utilities director. Anticipating Monday’s decision, the council last month funded a compliance officer position in the 2015 budget to oversee the new requirements.

Less than two hours before the vote, Spokane Mayor David Condon sent a letter to Stuckart asking him to postpone the vote because the ordinance didn’t “fully take into account the needs and input of all stakeholders who would be impacted by the program and its requirements, and it places too much discretion and authority with a single individual within City Hall. There are remaining issues that need further legal and financial analysis and review and input among citizens, stakeholders and city staff.”

Rick Romero, the city’s public works director, sided with Condon.

“We could’ve taken a little more time here and done a little more analysis,” he said. “To be honest, in this last hour, I’ve just caught up with the final ordinance. They were amending it right up to the end. … I don’t necessarily disagree with what they’re trying to accomplish here, but, potentially, the how.”

Most of those who spoke in favor of the ordinance at Monday’s meeting were either apprentices, former apprentices or involved in the Spokane Alliance, a group of union and church members.

Pat Perez, business manager for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 44, said his union was facing dwindling rolls as members retired and apprentices waited for work opportunities to augment their training.

“We’re losing the workforce,” he said. “That’s only going to continue to get worse if we don’t create more opportunities for apprentices.”

When Jim Dawson, campaign director of the statewide progressive group Fuse, spoke, Fagan suggested he had led a letter-writing campaign directed at City Hall.

“You write a good letter,” Fagan said as Dawson, who lives in Spokane, walked from the lectern.

Cheryl Stewart, the incoming executive director of the Inland Northwest Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, spoke against the law and asked the council to “look past emotions.”

“We don’t need mandates,” she said. “We need flexibility.”

Stewart said later she supported apprenticeship programs, but more supported “being able to manage our own workforce.” She added that her organization had two apprenticeship programs – one for carpenters with 40 apprentice positions, the other for heavy equipment operators with 50 positions – but was unsure the 150 contractors it represents could meet the city’s minimum requirement.

Kate McCaslin, president and CEO of the Inland Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, called the vote “disappointing” and said it showed the council’s “callous disregard for taxpayers’ money.”

“This will increase the cost of construction for taxpayers. We just don’t think it’s right,” she said. “I can’t remember an issue that has so galvanized an industry.”

State projects, including those done by the Transportation Department, currently are required to have 15 percent of total labor hours performed by apprentices on projects over $1 million. Public works projects done by school districts must meet the same requirement. Contractors must try to meet the goal and can be barred from bidding on future projects if they don’t show good-faith efforts. There is no automatic penalty, but the agency overseeing the project has the right to impose a penalty as part of the bid contract.

Federal highway projects have apprenticeship and training programs for women, minorities and disadvantaged people.

Stuckart dismissed complaints that his ordinance was drafted behind closed doors, as well as concerns that the law would make it harder for local companies to bid on city projects.

He cited an already large imbalance in projects going to outside companies. In 2014, companies located within Spokane County performed $1.1 million in city projects; companies outside of the county received $15.4 million. “It’s not working now. … We have to do something else,” Stuckart said.

“The testimony was something like 3-to-1 in favor. I was pretty bolstered by the comments I got from the citizens that showed up,” he said. “That was our largest-attended meeting of the year. People obviously knew about it. It wasn’t done in the dark.”