Merced mayor, other officials gather in Modesto to protest prevailing wage bill

kvaline@modbee.comAugust 16, 2013 

— Merced's mayor joined other Central Valley officials Monday in Modesto to protest a state Senate bill some say would punish Merced and other charter cities by making them pay more for public works projects and undermine their authority.

Senate Bill 7 would prevent a charter city from receiving state money for construction projects unless that city pays what is called the prevailing wage to workers on all construction or public works projects.

The prevailing wage is set by the state Department of Industrial Relations. Modesto, for example, has contractors pay the prevailing wage on projects funded by the state or federal government. But it does not require contractors to pay the prevailing wage on projects funded by the city, such as park and building maintenance.

Not paying the prevailing wage saves charter cities money and lets them stretch their dollars further. Supporters of the Senate bill say it creates well-paying, middle-class construction jobs, provides cities with well-trained construction workers and closes a loophole that has let charter cities not pay prevailing wages for all projects.

State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, joined Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in introducing the bill in February.

About a quarter of California's 480 cities are charter cities like Merced; the rest are what are known as general law cities. Charter cities have more flexibility and control over how they govern themselves. Fewer than half of the charter cities do not pay prevailing wages on city-funded projects.

The valley officials who gathered at a Monday morning news conference in front of Tenth Street Place in Modesto said the Senate bill erodes local control, drives up costs and is another example of overreach by the state.

"This bills needs to be defeated," said Modesto Councilwoman Stephanie Burnside, who was joined by Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, Merced Mayor Stan Thurston and other officials.

The state Senate has approved the bill, which is scheduled to be heard Wednesday by the state Assembly's Labor Committee, said Stephen Qualls, regional public affairs manager at the League of California Cities. The league opposes the bill.

About a dozen Modesto city officials attended the news conference. About 40 union members and their supporters attended to show their support of the bill. The union members represented several construction trades, such as heavy equipment operators, laborers, electricians and carpenters.

Modesto resident Tom Aja, a retired heavy equipment operator and union official, said the prevailing wage provided him and his family with a middle-class life and a secure retirement.

Information on how much it would cost Modesto to pay the prevailing wage for city-funded projects was not available. But Qualls said studies have shown prevailing wages are 10 percent to 30 percent higher than nonprevailing wages.

The Department of Industrial Relations sets prevailing wages twice a year. The wages are based on what the majority of construction workers in a particular trade earn within a geographic area. For instance, the prevailing wages for Northern San Joaquin Valley construction workers generally are not based on what their counterparts earn in the Bay Area.

A journeyman carpenter in the valley earns $31.27 per hour and a journeyman drywall installer earns $31.77, according to the Department of Industrial Relations' website.

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