SANTA ROSA -- A sharply divided Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last week put off a decision on a proposed countywide project labor agreement policy for public projects of more than $25 million and sent the matter back for further study.

With labor unions voicing support, and contractors and business leaders opposing, the board on Tuesday asked county staff for more specifics on an array of unanswered questions from Supervisors David Rabbitt and Valerie Brown.

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 -- expected in the next two months -- given that the Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport expansion project -- the prime target of a PLA, at least for now -- is nearing the bidding process. The initial phase of that project will cost about $53 million.

Those opposed to the policy 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.

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.

Much of the disagreement centered on the impact of union dues, benefits and pension funds for nonunion workers who might be working on a PLA project. The proposed policy addresses the issue vaguely, saying "no worker will be required to join a union as a condition of employment, but may be required to pay union representation fees." Opponents said some 80 percent of the county's construction force is not union, and that a PLA would put them at a disadvantage.

But supporters countered that those employees would see their pay and benefits go up for the duration of the project.

Debate also centered on what truly constitutes a local employee, particularly because Sonoma County itself would not have enough workers on large-scale public projects and would need to bring workers from surrounding counties. The board appeared to reach consensus that Marin, Napa, Solano, Lake and Mendocino counties would be included.

Proponents said they left the policy relatively open to allow for flexibility, stressing that the issue would likely be resolved in early negotiations.

"It's flexible for a reason -- to negotiate on a per-project basis," said Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, which lobbied heavily in support of the policy.

That was a nonstarter for supervisors Brown, of the First District, and Rabbitt, of the Second District. Each 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, supported PLAs.

Fifth District Supervisor Efren Carrillo remained relatively neutral, expressing support for some provisions while reluctant on others. Specifically, he wondered why a policy was needed when, as Sonoma County Counsel told the board, the county could opt for a PLA on individual projects.

The goal of PLAs 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.

Proponents specifically cite a project at College of Marin that came in under budget with the use of a PLA agreement.

Supervisor Rabbitt stressed that any PLA in the county needs to include the contractor in all aspects of negotiations, echoing opponents -- largely contractors and business groups -- who said the policy was too vague to allay concerns that they would be placed at a competitive disadvantage and that construction costs could increase.

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.