Wage change debate draws crowd

Councilman says staff capable of keeping quality work in Auburn
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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Local contractors spoke out Monday night against a potential change in city policy that they say could jeopardize their living. At the end of the discussion one City Council member said he would like to know more about a prevailing wage issue that brought a crowd to Monday’s City Council meeting. Michael Cobden, Auburn’s assistant city attorney filling in for City Attorney Michael Colantuono, explained three sections of the draft charter the city is considering including: exempting volunteers working on municipal projects from being paid prevailing wage, exempting contractors working on municipal projects from having to be paid prevailing wage and offering a bid preference to local companies for city projects. Cobden said a current California Supreme Court Case involving the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California and the city of Vista could decide whether or not charter cities can create their own prevailing wage policies. Cobden said the decision could come in a few months. Mayor Bill Kirby said the case isn’t relevant to the council’s current discussion of a potential charter, because no decision has been made. About 11 audience members spoke at the meeting, most in opposition to the possible prevailing wage exemption that could come with an Auburn charter. No community members spoke in favor of a charter. Loomis resident Dan Kern, an operating engineer, said he thinks when prevailing wage is taken away, the quality of work goes down. “It used to be that prevailing wage kind of set the standard for what someone in a certain skill should be paid, and when you take that away, you start a race for the bottom,” Kern said. Auburn resident Ronald Daniel said prevailing wage gave him the life he has, and being able to buy health insurance saved the life of his daughter, who suffered from kidney stones. “I would like to say prevailing wage has made it to where I can live in Auburn,” Daniel said. “Prevailing wage has made a lot for my lifestyle. I’m looking at retirement and pension, and I would hate to see that go away for future people.” Auburn resident Dennis Kennedy, a construction worker for 35 years, said his prevailing wage helped him raise his two daughters, and thinks if the city is hoping to save money, the savings could come from elsewhere. “Is the city of Auburn broke?” Kennedy asked. “I hardly think so. If there is money that needs to be cut somewhere, there are a lot of other places. But to take a wage from someone who works hard breaking his back every day, it’s tough.” Councilman Kevin Hanley said exempting contractors from making prevailing wage on city projects is a choice the council would have under the charter, not an absolute. “If the City Council decided there was a race to the bottom … and we were getting a lower quality of work, the council could decide to pay the prevailing wage,” Hanley said. Hanley said he felt it was a “hit” on the city’s Public Works staff to assume that the state government and unions should set wages and not allow Auburn to decide on non-prevailing wages if necessary. Hanley said he trusted the Auburn Public Works Department to continue to manage high quality work on its projects, even without prevailing wage. Councilman Mike Holmes said he was confused by what exactly prevailing wage is, and Kirby asked Cobden to bring a clear definition back to the council before the July 25 meeting, including what prevailing wage means on projects. Kirby said he thinks the charter is much bigger than the prevailing wage issue, and is focused on the city possibly having more control over its affairs. Holmes said so far local citizens didn’t seem to have a very positive reaction to the potential charter. “I’m trying to keep an open mind about this,” Holmes said. “What concerns me is this city was re-incorporated in 1888 and now there seems to be urgency about doing a charter. So far … there aren’t a lot of local residents who are coming in and arguing on behalf of a city charter. I just want to point that out.” Reach Bridget Jones at