A majority of Clay County’s lame duck commission seems intent on expanding prevailing wage requirements on contractors Wednesday night, just weeks before other commissioners join them in January.
Missouri already has a prevailing wage law setting a minimum wage rate for public works projects costing over $75,000. A proposed ordinance on the commission agenda Wednesday evening would expand the wage requirement in Clay County to even subcontractors – many of whom are small, local businesses that may be unable to afford the prevailing wage rate.
That could funnel more projects away from local businesses and to larger companies able to pay higher wages.
“That’s my opinion,” says Commissioner Jerry Nolte, the lone commissioner of the current three to oppose adopting the ordinance right now.
Nolte said he unsuccessfully moved to table the proposal, when it first surfaced last week, until after the first of the year to study the financial impact – and to give the four new commissioners a voice in the matter. The commission is expanding in January from three members to seven, with all three current commissioners staying on.
Nolte said he’s not sure what’s driving the proposal, or why there’s a rush to do it before the new commissioners take office.
“I don’t see the hurry,” he told The Heartlander Tuesday. “I think when we’re talking about an ordinance that is of this magnitude I think more than two meetings are in order, and that we should have the larger commission weigh in – all seven, and not try to get it in under the wire before they’re sworn in.
“The comment was made, ‘Well, we can always fix it later.’ Why don’t we just take our time and do it right the first time?”
Nolte noted the businesses that would have to pay the higher wages have had very little notice about the proposed wage hike, and may not even know it could be coming.
“This has not been vetted,” he said. “Nobody was really quite aware of it until it sort of popped up on the agenda, and I was a little surprised about it myself. We need to get feedback from people who are going to be affected by this ordinance.
“For good or bad, I think we ought to hear from all sides. But the chance for any opposition to speak has been somewhat limited – just by the time element, by the rush that we seem to be putting on it.”
While Nolte says he’s keeping an open mind on the proposal, he’s all the more hesitant to rush into it because of his own inability, even as a sitting commissioner, to get answers about it.
“When I was asking questions I was getting ‘I don’t know’ more often than I was comfortable with, and I would like to have those questions answered prior to us making a decision on it.”
Missouri already has a pretty “robust” prevailing wage law, says Nolte – who ought to know, since he largely wrote the law as a member of the House.
“I’m not sure exactly what problem we’re solving here,” he said.
Commissioner Megan Thompson says the issue is the quality of work done on county projects and the skill and safety of those doing it – particularly after the Oct. 26 collapse of the under-construction Shady Grove Bridge over Carroll Creek at N.E. 148 St., in which one worker died and three were injured.
“And we also want to make sure we don’t have unscrupulous contractors that might hire people who are not legally here in our country and give them the jobs over men and women who just want to have a good job and make a living here in Clay County,” she said. “It helps the American workers because they are the backbone of our nation, and that is my stance on this. I’m working for this ordinance because I want to make sure that taxpayer money doesn’t go to support illegal immigration.”
As for the seemingly hurried timing of it, Thompson said there is no rush; it’s just that the ordinance has been in the works for awhile and is simply ready to go.
“As a commissioner, I don’t take December off,” she said. “We don’t take breaks. It just happened to be that this document was completed. This is a good starting point, after the bridge collapse, to get something moved forward.”
Thompson said she’ll make a motion Wednesday that the expanded commission in January can take a second look at the ordinance – though in reality, no such motion is necessary for that to happen.
Instead, Nolte suggests simply waiting for the expanded commission in January – out of respect to the new members, but also in light of the recent election campaign in which the candidates had their fingers on the pulse of their constituents.
Is the ordinance indeed an effort to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants? It may be, though Nolte says that was only mentioned in passing – and it’s covered anyway by labor laws that encourage employers to check workers’ immigration status or perhaps lose their license to operate.
Might the ordinance squeeze small local contractors out of public projects, even as subcontractors?
“I believe that’s a possibility,” Nolte says. “That’s one of the issues that I was asking questions about (at the meeting Dec. 7). And I was not satisfied with the answers. I was told by one of the witnesses that this would, in fact, be good for small business. I’ve been involved in small businesses as an owner since 1977, and quite honestly I did not follow his logic.
“I think this would actually be harmful to small businesses, and less competitive.”