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Labor agreement for $78 million Santa Rosa Junior College project irks contractors

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Santa Rosa Junior College’s decision to apply a union-backed construction management plan to a $78 million science and technology building has revived complaints from contractors’ groups that say the pacts curb competition and raise costs for taxpayers.

College officials and labor leaders rebutted the criticism, saying the pact passed an intentional test in the ongoing renovation of venerable Burbank Auditorium, despite cost increases and delayed completion of the $31.8 million project.

SRJC President Frank Chong said he was thoroughly satisfied with the use of a project labor agreement for work on the 85-year-old auditorium, now scheduled for completion in November, six months behind schedule.

“It’s been a very smooth project,” Chong said, adding that faculty, students and the community will relish the modernized theater, which hosts student productions and a summer repertory company.

Chong said he had “absolutely no reservations” in recommending the Board of Trustees extend the agreement to cover the Lindley Center for STEM Education, a three-story, 109,000-square-foot building expected to start construction early next year.

Trustees approved the recommendation Oct. 8 on a split vote, with Dorothy Battenfield, Jordan Burns, Don Edgar, Maggie Fishman and Mariana Martinez in favor. Longtime trustees Jeff Kunde and Terry Lindley, for whom the building will be named, were opposed.

Edgar, who made the motion for approval, had voted against the agreement twice in 2017.

In an interview last week, Edgar said he was “more than convinced” of the agreement’s value by a staff report at the board meeting.

The report noted that neither the construction delay on the auditorium nor the nine change orders that added $3.5 million to the project were due to the agreement. Change orders are ultimately expected to add $3.8 million to the original $28 million contract approved by the board in November 2017.

Jordan Burns, the board president who considers himself a “stickler on change orders,” had no problem with the add-ons and said they had nothing to do with the agreement.

“Those would have come up regardless,” he said.

One of the major change orders amounted to about $1 million for a new roof, a need that was unknown until work on the aging building revealed the roof had leaked during last winter’s heavy rains, Burns said.

The $40 million Bertolini Student Center, built in 2010 without a labor agreement, had 140 change orders, he said.

At the Oct. 8 meeting, six trustees, including Kunde and Lindley, unanimously approved a $356,000 change order.

Critics of the agreement who represent nonunion building contractors faulted the auditorium project for running over budget and behind schedule and for still not being complete. Their objections renewed a clash between unions and construction management over project labor agreements dating back to the 1990s.

Keith Woods, head of 1,250-member North Coast Builders Exchange, said the group is “100%” opposed to the agreements that are “flat out wrong” for public construction projects.

“They discriminate against 85% of the construction industry that is nonunion,” he said, also complaining that college officials had said the auditorium project, still in the works, would be used as a test of the agreement.

“Here they go violating what we felt was a commitment they had made,” he said.

Woods said he had been out of town for 10 days and wasn’t able to rally contractors to show up and “register strong reaction” at the recent board meeting.

The builders group lobbied hard against the agreement in 2017, but it was adopted by the board on a split vote, with Battenfield, Burns, Martinez and Fishman voting “aye.” The four trustees had been elected since 2014 with endorsements from the Sonoma County Democratic Party and union groups.

Democratic congressmen Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Rep. Jared Huffman of San Rafael wrote letters supporting labor agreements.

Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, faulted the trustees in an Oct. 8 email for considering “another monopoly agreement (with labor interests) before the one you already handed them is even complete and the results studied.”

“This isn’t how serious public entities are run,” he said.

His group was formed in 1998 with the sole purpose of fighting project labor agreements that it contends discourage bidders, increase costs and “reduce participation from minority and women-owned small businesses,” according to the coalition website.

Nonunion contractors and workers are allowed to participate in jobs covered by labor agreements, but the workers have to pay for union benefits — health, welfare and pension plans — they will never realize, Christen said in an email to a reporter, calling it “wage theft.”

Jack Buckhorn, head of the Sonoma Lake & Mendocino Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, which negotiated the agreement with SRJC, disputed that assessment. Most workers will gain over their career the pension credits required to receive lifetime benefits at retirement age, he said in an email.

The real fear nonunion employers have is losing their workers who opt for the overall better compensation of union jobs, Buckhorn said.

Labor agreements have been used to build the Graton Resort & Casino and most of the geothermal power plants at the The Geysers, he said.

Woods said he has no qualms about their use on private construction projects.

In 2014, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors adopted a policy calling for labor agreements on projects costing more than $10 million and is now applying it for the first time to the $48 million behavioral health unit to be built adjacent to the Sonoma County Jail.

The county has selected three qualified bidders that will each submit a price for the job with a labor agreement and without one, said Caroline Judy, the county’s general services director.

All bids will be made public, but the bid process must await state approval of the project’s design and construction plan because it is funded by a state grant, she said.

At SRJC, both the Burbank Auditorium and the Lindley Center are funded by a $410 million bond measure approved by voters in 2014. A total of $125 million will have been spent by January 2020, Chong said.

“We’re spending the money very efficiently,” he said. “We have a very aggressive building plan.”

The decision on whether to adopt a labor agreement will be made separately for each future project, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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