State plan on wage law spurs debate

Local officials eye school construction issue in legislature

Division along party lines

Republicans seek resolution opposing Glendening proposal

February 14, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A partisan battle has begun in Howard County over Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to pay prevailing union wages for most school construction jobs.

The fight pits County Council Republicans against Democratic County Executive James N. Robey, and some county school construction funding might hang in the balance.

Yale Stenzler, director of Maryland's Interagency Committee on School Construction, said the law -- which would require contractors to pay workers at the predominant rate in an area -- would probably affect few, if any, projects in Howard County, because it would only apply to projects funded 50 percent or more with state funds.

Howard normally pays about 70 to 75 percent of total costs. Sidney L. Cousin, associate superintendent of Howard schools, said the county's habit of paying for school projects with local funds years before getting state reimbursement should mean those projects "wouldn't be affected."

Cousin told the County Council during an informal meeting with the school last week that the tight labor market has driven construction wages up near prevailing levels anyway.

Despite that, Howard County Council Republicans Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon introduced a council resolution opposing the move, which they contend could raise the cost of building county schools by millions of dollars.

"It does a disservice to our students. We're now going to take money out of the classroom and spend it on higher construction costs. That can't be a win for students," said Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican. But Robey said he favors the idea, if increased county costs can be limited to 5 percent.

"I support it, but we're going to suggest an amendment that would require the state to pay the difference if the costs exceed 5 percent above what it does now," he said Friday. Earlier, he had proposed an 8 percent limit on increased costs.

Despite the possibility of higher costs, Robey said, "I think it's good for construction and good for working people." Kittleman, who represents the western county, disagrees.

"They are willing to have less schools and less construction in exchange for rewarding unions. I think the children should come first. We shouldn't put the unions before our kids," he said.

"They're Republicans playing their game," said Robey. "I'm going to do what's right. I think it's important to do it." The two Republicans need at least one Democrat to win passage of their resolution from the five-member council.

"I'm going to support the governor," said Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat. "There's nothing wrong with that -- paying a fair wage," he said during Tuesday's meeting with the school board.

A costly decision

The issue is likely to heighten partisan tensions as the county competes for at least $68 million in state school construction money that Glendening and his fellow Board of Public Works members will parcel out by May.

Glendening, who proposed the change to aid construction unions that backed his 1998 re-election, has warned that county officials who oppose him -- such as Prince Georges County Executive Wayne K. Curry -- might get less supplemental school construction money.

If Glendening holds to that position, Howard could lose out by opposing his bill, or face higher construction costs if it passes.

Estimates differ

Cousin said he expects costs would increase "somewhere about 8 percent" under the governor's bill. The county has been approved for $13.2 million in state school construction money next fiscal year, he said.

County budget director Raymond S. Wacks said various studies have predicted costs from 0-20 percent higher.

The Maryland Association of Counties, which opposed the bill last year, hasn't taken a position on the issue this year, said executive director David Bliden.

Although the group is waiting for research on the costs, Bliden said, "When you're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars going into school construction, several percentage points translates into schools [that won't be built]." This fiscal year, the state parceled out $258 million for school construction, matched in varying degrees by local funds.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he hasn't seen enough research yet to make up his mind, but didn't expect to support Kittleman and Merdon's resolution.

"We've got several responsibilities -- to get the best price for schools, but also to make sure people are treated fairly and well," he said.

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