Two outgoing Luzerne County Council members convinced a majority of their colleagues Tuesday to pass controversial initiatives aimed at attracting more competition to supply county goods and services.
Councilman Stephen J. Urban pitched the first: cancellation of a “responsible contractor agreement” imposed by prior commissioners in 2009.
This agreement required contractors bidding on general construction and renovation projects over $25,000 to seek union laborers and skilled trade workers, pay them prevailing wages and honor other benefits and working conditions.
Several nonunion contractors had implored the commissioners to reject the agreement in 2009, saying it would decrease competition and jack up public spending on construction. Advocates said the pact would create a level playing field and prevent nonunion contractors from using unskilled or underpaid workers to land contracts.
County Engineer Greg Parrs told the council Tuesday that three prospective bidders recently walked out of a pre-bid conference for a prison job when they learned they must use union labor.
“There are a lot of contractors who don’t use union labor who give fair and competitive bids,” Parrs said, estimating projects are costing the county 10 to 30 percent more than necessary.
Eight council members voted to terminate the agreement, with no votes from Linda McClosky Houck and Tim McGinley. Kathy Dobash, the remaining council member, was absent.
Councilman James Bobeck pushed for the second initiative adopted Tuesday — an option known as “managed competition” that has been used by some governments across the country to shop around for better prices and ways to deliver specific services.
Managed competition will allow the administration to open up some work now provided by county workers to outside bidders, Bobeck has said.
Union officials have criticized this proposal when he brought it up in the past, saying it was an attempt to privatize or outsource. Bobeck disagreed with those labels because employees who perform the work would have a shot at submitting their own proposal to keep it.
Bobeck said Tuesday the county’s five-year financial recovery plan identified managed competition as a useful tool. The proposal adopted Tuesday requires the administration to develop parameters and identify services that may be provided by the private sector.
Seven council members agreed to implement managed competition. McClosky Houck voted no, and Rick Morelli and Tim McGinley said they were abstaining because they believe three incoming council members should be involved in the decision.
Jane Walsh Waitkus, Eugene Kelleher and Robert Schnee will take office Jan. 4, replacing Morelli, Bobeck and Stephen J. Urban. Morelli and Bobeck did not seek another term.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban said the federal government has reduced costs through managed competition.
Councilman Harry Haas agreed, saying it is “something long overdue” in county government.
McClosky Houck, who has described the practice as outsourcing in the past, noted Bobeck’s “attempt to change policy as he has one foot out the door.”
Some collective bargaining agreements set limitations or outright prohibit privatization, but a few allow outsourcing if a meeting is scheduled to discuss possibilities about a future relationship between the union and new providers. County officials periodically have discussed outsourcing services over the years, but tax claim is the only office that was privatized.
In other business, the council appointed or reappointed members to several outside boards and authorities: Farmland Preservation, Linda Thoma; Agency on Aging, Joanne Corey and Noah Davis; Children and Youth, Holly Evanoski; Flood Protection, Kevin O’Brien; Housing, Patricia McClure; Industrial Development, Karen Martinelli and Frank Paczewski; Convention Center, Frank Conyngham and Thomas Woods; Mental Health, Carl Charnetski and Helena Laurency; Recreational, Michele Schasberger; Redevelopment, Scott Linde; Transportation, Patrick Conway and Gary Polakoski; Workforce Investment, Jane Ashton and Michael Saporito; and Zoning, Leon Schuster.
Council Vice Chairman Edward Brominski urged more citizens to apply for vacant seats, saying the pool is too small. Information is available at www.luzernecounty.org.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.