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SANTA ROSA -- The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday evening agreed to temporarily table talks on a hotly debated proposed countywide project labor agreement policy for public projects of more than $25 million, sending the matter back to county staff for further study.[poll id="36"]

After nearly five hours of passionate arguments for and against the proposal -- with labor unions voicing support, and contractors and business leaders opposing -- a divided board asked County Administrator Veronica Ferguson for more specifics on an array of unanswered questions from Supervisors David Rabbitt and Valerie Brown. 

As proposed, the policy would recommend that the county adopt PLAs for public projects of $25 million more. The board said it would hold another hearing on the matter as soon as possible, given that the Sonoma County Airport expansion project -- the prime target of a PLA, at least for now -- is nearing the construction phase. The initial phase of that project will cost about $53 million.

The goal of such agreements, according to proponents, is to provide a pool of highly trained and skilled workers on each segment of construction, thus ensuring on-budget, on-time completion. The proposed Sonoma County policy also would include apprenticeship programs for residents and veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.Opponents argue that PLAs drive up costs because the requirements often discourage nonunion contractors and subcontractors from bidding, leading to higher bids overall because of the lack of competition. Opponents also contend that the work rules increase labor costs, which are then passed onto the developer of the project.

Supervisors Brown, of the First District, and Rabbitt, of the Second District, both expressed serious reservations over adopting any policy that essentially mandated the use of PLAs.

Supervisors Shirlee Zane, of the Third District, and Mike McGuire, of the Fourth District, which includes the airport project, both supported PLAs.

Fifth District Supervisor Efren Carrillo remained relatively neutral, expressing support for some provisions while reluctant on others.

The board said it would consider adopting a PLA specifically for the airport project and asked county staff to draw up a proposal that would address concerns of the board. Any given county can enter into a PLA and does not need a specific policy requiring them, as the Sonoma County Counsel's Office told the board.

The board may also consider to opt for a "double process," similar to what was used for reviewing the Sutter Health new hospital, now under construction north of Santa Rosa. Approval of the policy would be a two-part decision that would have to clear certain hurdles before a final vote could take place.

Project labor agreements are a prehire agreement that essentially governs work rules, pay rates, benefits and dispute-resolution processes. Terms and conditions are typically set by the agreement and apply to every contractor and subcontractor involved on a given project.

Supervisors Brown and Rabbitt both said the proposal, as it stands, is too vague and expressed concern on construction costs. Both echoed opponents' views over how health benefits and pension contributions would impact nonunion workers working on a PLA project. Nonunion contractors can still bid on on PLA projects, but opponents say it puts them at a competitive disadvantage and increases labor costs.

Supervisor Brown said the policy was "too unstructured," and that there was "too much open out there." Specifically, the health benefits issue was a key concern.

Supervisor Rabbitt echoed that concern. But he stressed that PLAs need to include the contractor in all aspects of negotiations.

Supervisor Zane said dozens of PLAs are in place throughout California, with 73 percent of them with private developers.

"This is good public policy that strengthens the middle class," she said, pointing to the apprenticeship program as a key benefit.

The $25 million threshold would prevent discrimination in the bidding process that opponents say PLAs would cause, according to Supervisor McGuire.

"The threshold is really important," he said

In Sonoma County, opponents have said the policy fixes a problem that doesn't exist, while proponents have said PLAs ensure fair labor practices and high-wage jobs for local workers. Those opposed to the policy also viewed the ruling as at least a temporary victory, saying the the language lacked specificity needed to allay concerns.

"Entering into an agreement that's not yet defined is not a good business practice," said Sean Beehler, speaking on behalf of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

North Coast Builders Exchange, a trade group representing builders and contractors, is vehemently opposed to the proposal. The North Bay Labor Council, an affiliate of AFL-CIO, and other unions have come out in support of the proposal.