The Waterbury Republican American reported on 2/24/10 that two CT schools recently constructed under project labor agreements (PLAs) have suffered cost overruns, construction defects and missed construction deadlines.
CONSTRUCTION CONTRAST: Item: The $20.5 million Rotella Interdistrict Magnet School was finished late and came in 10 percent over budget. Today, it’s leaky, the climate-control system is faulty, the courtyard isn’t level, and brown stuff oozes from the tile floors in some places. Item: The $34.7 million Duggan School reconstruction is at least 20 percent over budget, and the school will open a year later than expected. In both cases, the Board of Education insisted on union-only project labor agreements (PLAs), effectively excluding the many nonunion contractors from bidding. Item: The $35.9 million City Hall renovation, about which we had serious misgivings from the start because of long years of neglect and recent, potentially catastrophic water damage, likely will be turned over to the city Nov. 30, a month early, and apparently under budget. The City Hall project was not a union-only PLA. What conclusions might one draw from these facts?
In 2007, Waterbury Board of Education officials mandated PLAs on $90 million worth of public school construction like the Duggan School and the Rotella Interdistrict Magnet School. The Republican-American wrote this scathing editorial opposed to the decision by Waterbury Board of Education officials to mandate PLAs on future construction (“The Return of Paronage,” 1/29/07).
It didn’t take long for Waterbury’s political establishment to make taxpayers start missing the state oversight board, which disbanded last week. The oversight board’s prime directive was to stand up for taxpayers. Those who hoped that approach to spending might spread through government like a vaccine saw their hopes dashed Jan. 22 by the Board of Education.
Presented with an opportunity to save city and state taxpayers money on school construction, the board said no to the savings and yes to a special-interest group: labor unions.
Poised to spend $90 million in school construction and renovation, the board could have opened the bidding to independent contractors that may or may not use union labor; or to union contractors only.
Obviously, the former approach would have saved money. Lelah Campo of Associated Builders and Contractors of Connecticut told the board 80 percent of the contracting firms in the state are not unionized, so there would have been keener competition for the contracts.
Just as obviously, choosing the lower-cost alternative presented no implications for quality. Only qualified bidders would win contracts. The Interstate 84 storm-sewer fiasco, meanwhile, was a union production. So was the troubled Rotella Magnet School project. Boston’s Big Dig, notorious for cost overruns, delays and lethal incompetence? Union only.
The board voted 7-3 to require a project-labor agreement, meaning only union contractors need apply. There was an undercurrent of selfish irresponsibility; board members understood the state will pay 80 percent of the project cost. The state’s money; the state’s tough luck, if the board’s decision inflates the price tag.
Most distressing, however, were the indications the board simply didn’t grasp its duty to taxpayers. With four dozen union members in the audience and only a few people representing the independent contractors, the board may have felt intimidated. But it didn’t take long for members to play to the crowd. “The key component of this whole thing is for Waterbury people to get a good wage,” board President Patrick J. Hayes Jr. said. “It’s about rebuilding the community.”
No, it’s about getting the schools built properly, on or under budget, and on time. It’s about public education. If Mr. Hayes and other members of the majority want to help adults in Waterbury get better wages, government agencies and private organizations engaged in that mission would benefit from their enthusiasm. But the school board’s job is to provide the best possible education for the children for a price the community can afford. Knowingly inflating the cost of a $90 million project poorly serves that objective.