Labor-state trickery curbs non-union labor

New York lawmakers have changed a decades-old law that critics maintain inflates costs of public construction projects. But the reform is not sufficient enough to have much benefit upstate, business leaders and school officials said. The state Legislature, in the final hours of the budget process, changed the Wicks Law, which required the hiring of four separate contractors on public projects, including ones done by school districts, if the value of the project is more than $50,000.

While the law was originally intended to prevent subcontractors from billing fraud, critics have argued the law has outlived its usefulness and drives up construction costs, which are, in turn, passed on to taxpayers.

The change, approved by lawmakers, increases the thresholds for triggering the Wicks Law to $3 million in New York City, $1.5 million in downstate suburbs, and $500,000 in upstate. It's the first time the law has been adjusted for inflation since the 1960s.

The reforms "prove that when we work together, we can get real results for the people of New York," Gov. David A. Paterson said. The change will cut New York City's long-term construction costs by more than $200 million and save upstate governments millions as well, supporters said.

But upstate officials were far less enthusiastic, saying the change is heavily weighted toward downstate and will have only limited impact upstate.

The impact will be limited because the threshold for upstate remains too low, said Catherine Glover, president and CEO of the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce. "Upstate is being shortchanged," she said. "Anything other than a free and open bidding process fails the public."

Kenneth Adams, president of the Business Council of New York State, also said the threshold is too low, and the changes are not significant enough to create savings upstate.

While several school districts in the Southern Tier will be undertaking construction projects to upgrade their buildings over the next few years, most of these projects are multimillion-dollar ones, far exceeding the new threshold.

"When schools do projects they are generally more than $500,000," said John Mauro, business manager in the Johnson City Central School District. Johnson City, for example, is now planning a $12 million project, he said.

"In today's dollars, $500,000 doesn't get you a lot of work," said Tom Keenan, director of facilities and operations for the Binghamton City School District.

Lawmakers from the Southern Tier also were less than thrilled. While the change is a step toward reforming the Wicks Law, the disparity between upstate, downstate and New York City remains too high, said Assemblywoman Donna A. Lupardo, D-Endwell.

The Legislature's reform also includes a provision that municipal contracts of any size can now be exempt from the Wicks Law if the municipality requires the contractor to sign a project labor agreement that requires the use of union labor.

The provision upsets some business officials because, they said, it will force all contractors to pay union-level wage rates, driving up labor costs and shutting out non-union contractors.

The process of changing the law left something to be desired, said Sen. Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton. Instead of rushing change as part of the budget bill, the Legislature should have debated changes in the Wicks Law separately and more openly.


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