[caption id="attachment_67318" align="alignnone" width="500"] A worker in January 2013 positions the beam used in the "topping off" ceremony for the Graton Resort & Casino project, which opened in November. The project is one of several pointed to as successful North Bay examples of project labor agreements.[/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday appeared to back a proposed policy for project labor agreements on public construction of more than $10 million, although the matter will come back for a final vote in two weeks.

The board sent the matter back to county staff to draw up a final policy based on hours of debate, including more than three hours of public comment from both proponents and opponents.  A majority of the board signaled support for a PLA policy, with Supervisor David Rabbit expressing the most reservations but not outright opposition. A final vote will take place during the board's Jan. 28 meeting.

While PLAs aren't final policy, opponents of such agreements sounded a tone of frustration and imminent defeat in the pitched political battle.

"What happened today was an incredible disappointment if you're a Sonoma County taxpayer," said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, which has long held that PLAs drive up costs for contractors.'Alternate bid,' $10 million threshold

The exchange's position, however, is that if it had to live with a countywide PLA policy, it would prefer a so-called "alternate bid" process, wherein a given construction project would be put out by the county to bid as both a PLA and a nonunion project, in an attempt to see which was more cost-effective. 

Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Rabbit were the only board members to express strong support for this measure, with the remaining board noting that if the county determines a project bid is too high, it already has the authority to reject the bid and therefore would put out bids that were only a PLA.

Supervisors also lowered the threshold for PLA projects to $10 million, significantly below the originally proposed PLAs threshold for projects totaling more than $25 million on federally funded projects and more than $10 million on state or locally funded projects.

Supervisor Mike McGuire said the $10 million threshold and the proposed PLA policy are more than adequate, noting that the average county project is $4 million, according to the General Services Department.

"I think it is a very fair threshold," he said.

The policy calls for Sonoma County to adopt such agreements in an attempt draw down costs for bidding on major construction projects while promoting the use of local contractors and the local workforce. The board settled on the figure of 70 percent for local trade workers, with local being considered anyone from Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties.

"I believe we made our best attempt at putting forward something that is fair," said Supervisor Carrillo, who along with Supervisor Rabbit worked on an ad hoc committee report that recommended the alternate bidding provision.

Supervisor McGuire challenged the assertion from PLA policy opponents that the agreements can lead to project cost overruns. Major North Bay projects such as those by College of Marin, the county of Solano and Graton Resort & Casino were completed on time and on budget with a mix of bidders both affiliated with unions and not, he said.Politics of construction

Yet these agreements should be called "political labor agreements," according to Mr. Woods of the builders exchange, whose roughly 1,800 members do include some with organized labor.

"This is all showtime," Mr. Woods told the board. "We have no beef with unions. We do have a big beef with PLAs. What you're looking at here is unfair competition. It's discriminatory."

Proponents repeatedly pointed to the seemingly rapid construction of the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, the $820 million facility that was the product of a PLA that employed roughly 1,000 workers from local trade unions throughout its construction.

"The really shining example we have in this county is the casino that was built under a PLA," Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.  "It's the fastest project I've seen here living in Sonoma County, and it did support a lot of local workers."

The policy proposal brought back a spirited debate from late 2012 between organized labor and business interests and nonunion contractors, although the mood today was far less contentious than it was more than a year and a half ago.

"There's special interest on all sides, but I think this is about values and about really supporting our middle class," Supervisor Zane said, noting the political nature of the decision.'Core workers,' workforce training

The proposed PLA policy would also include a set of key agreements related to hiring practices for such projects, including use of "core workers" -- mostly sourced from Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties -- and requirements for pre-apprentice and technical workforce training programs for local workers. The policy would not permit "double payment of benefits, where contractors provide existing equivalent benefit plans," and all trades and unions would be signatory to the PLA. That means there could only be one agreement per project.

Under the proposed policy, the board would approve each project PLA for projects that qualify. Upon approval, the PLA would then become part of all bidding documents, and all bidding contractors would have to agree to be bound by rules set forth in the PLA.

Potential PLA projects include the planned county community corrections center, which is estimated to cost $68 million; comprehensive county facilities plan projects that could cost $25 million; and a new terminal at Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport that could cost $60 million.

Opponents also contend that because all county projects already fall under prevailing wage laws, the PLA policy seeks to solve a problem that doesn't exist. Proponents, including the North Bay Labor Council and AFL-CIO, say PLAs help ensure labor abuse doesn't occur and that work stoppages are far less likely under a PLA. They also point to proposed apprentice programs, including one that would require contractors to make "good faith efforts" to hire qualified veterans, as a positive step for middle class trade workers.

In September 2012, the board similarly weighed whether or not it should adopt PLAs but ultimately decided to hold off until further study was completed.  At the time, Supervisors Carrillo and Rabbit were joined by then-Supervisor Valerie Brown in not moving forward on PLAs.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, who succeeded Ms. Brown, joined Supervisors Zane and McGuire this time in supporting PLAs, while Supervisors Carrillo and Rabbit are more tepid in their support. A simple majority vote is required from the board to adopt the policy.