A proposal by Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling to require some city contractors to pay livable wages and participate in a state-registered apprenticeship program will get a public hearing and possible vote Monday.

The so-called responsible contracting ordinance would require firms seeking certain city contracts to pay their workers prevailing wages, which are established annually for each county by the Maine Department of Labor. It could also require them to participate in an apprenticeship program registered with the Labor Department. And it would prohibit the city from awarding work to contractors who have two or more judgments against them for workplace safety, wage or hour violations.

The ordinance would apply to contractors and their subcontractors on all construction or maintenance projects over $50,000.

Although Maine has similar rules for state projects, Strimling said Portland would be the first municipality in the state to establish those rules for local contracts. There are believed to be more than 250 similar ordinances in 20 states.

The so-called responsible contracting ordinance proposal by Mayor Ethan Strimling would require firms seeking certain city contracts to pay their workers prevailing wages, established annually by the Maine Department of Labor.

“These are all important,” Strimling said. “They all reflect our values. The most important piece is making sure our workers are earning a wage that allows them to live in the city they work.”

But some question whether the ordinance is needed, since an informal survey conducted by the city showed that many contractors are already paying the wages required by the ordinance. And the city attorney has warned that the apprenticeship piece could be struck down in a legal challenge.

“I’m trying to remain open to the parts of the ordinance that I’m not strongly against,” said City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who leads the council’s Finance Committee. One area of concern is a potential legal challenge, he said. “Is there an issue we’re trying to solve or are we just trying to make some sort of statement?”

Strimling has been going back and forth with city staff, such as City Manager Jon Jennings, about whether the new requirements would increase the costs of city projects and limit the pool of contractors seeking city bids. The mayor has cited over 30 studies that he says show that the ordinance will not increase costs, while Jennings has pointed to others that say it will. Both groups of studies include reports from either left-wing or right-wing groups either advocating for or against these rules, although Strimling included studies from universities.

But Jennings said he continues to have “great concerns” about the proposal being considered by the council. At a recent meeting, the city’s finance director warned that the city’s capital budget, which is used to maintain buildings, roads and other infrastructure, was heading into some lean years, given a nearly $1 million annual increase in pension obligation bonds, coupled with less debt coming off the books.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who leads the council’s Finance Committee, said he’s trying to stay open about the parts of the ordinance he supports.

“This will result in even more expensive projects or getting less done with our limited budget,” Jennings said. “I do believe there is a much better way to achieve some of the results that are desired that will not handcuff us from working to find reasonable cost solutions and contracting with local companies who have done great work for the city in the past.”

Matt Marks, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of Maine, also thinks the ordinance will increase costs and limit the pool of bidders. He said many firms already have apprenticeship programs, but they’re not registered with the state, because of the paperwork and reporting requirements. He said the prevailing wage rules could add costs to companies, even if they’re paying prevailing wages, because if a worker does two different trades, his or her hours and pay will have to be documented separately.

“I understand the intent behind it, but I think it’s an overreach,” Marks said.

Jason Shedlock, executive director of the Maine Building Trades Association, consisting of 15 local affiliates that represent over 5,000 workers, said the city’s concerns over costs are overblown, since using apprentices can lower labor costs. He acknowledged that most contractors try to do the right thing in terms of wages and safety, but the ordinance is still needed to weed out the bad actors.

“We know there are those who win and execute bids on the backs of underpaid, mistreated and often illegally misclassified workers,” Shedlock said. “And the city of Portland should not be complicit in letting that happen on their watch. We can and must do better.”

The city has already required prevailing wages to be paid on projects that receive tax increment financing from the city. However, councilors voted down an apprenticeship requirement in late 2017.

Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s top attorney, said in a memo to the Finance Committee that a provision requiring contractors to participate in a registered apprenticeship program could be challenged in court. And, she said, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled against a provision similar to Portland’s, although she added the city could put forward additional legal arguments not used in that case.

“Under First Circuit precedent (which is the federal circuit that includes Maine), a local ordinance mandating participation in an apprenticeship program is vulnerable not just to challenge but to being invalidated,” West-Chuhta wrote.

Strimling and Mavodones said the committee would look into whether adding incentives for apprenticeship programs, such as through the award of bonus points in a bidding process, would be a better way to achieve the same goal – and possibly avoid a long legal battle.

Strimling said over three dozen states, including Maine, have similar ordinances for state projects and many larger cities have the local rules as well.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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