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Council discusses prevailing wage law

Members agree committee-based system needs change

– Fort Wayne City Council members held a wide-ranging discussion on the state’s prevailing wage law Tuesday because the issue is confusing and controversial and about all anyone agrees on is that something should probably be done about it.

And that was largely the conclusion they left with after two hours of discussion.

State law says that for most government construction projects over $350,000, the base wage – known as the “common wage” or the “prevailing wage” – must be determined by a five-member committee. Contractors can pay higher wages than that schedule, but not less.

Each government agency has its own committee, and in Allen County, each hears a case from union contractors represented by the AFL-CIO and non-union contractors represented by the Associated Building Contractors. The committees are supposed to make a decision based on the evidence before them at the hearing, but no one disagreed Tuesday that the interpretations of that evidence are often colored by their own views.

“The decision is primarily determined by the bias of who’s on these committees, and who’s on these committees is determined by the bias of who’s choosing them,” concluded John Crawford, R-at large. “But that’s how the law is.”

Geoff Paddock, D-5th, made the situation even clearer: “You either have to change the mayor or change state legislation.”

While Fort Wayne’s Democratic mayor appoints committee members that vote for union wages, Republican-controlled Allen County’s committee votes for Associated Building Contractors wages.

Union officials say that when they present evidence at a wage hearing, their data represents all union workers in a given skill set, usually about 1.3 million hours worked. Associated Building Contractors officials admit that their evidence is only a survey of ABC contractors that not all of them respond to and that their data covers about 783,000 hours worked, but counter that union workers are only about 30 percent of construction workers and about 10 percent of contractors. They can’t present all their data, officials said, because much of it is proprietary.

The law says the prevailing wage is set by the mathematical mode, not the median or average. The mode in a set of numbers is the number that appears most frequently.

John Stafford, executive director of IPFW’s Community Research Institute, said no one knows what the true prevailing wage is because those 30 percent of workers who are union members might be working 70 percent of the hours in Allen County. He said attempts have been made to standardize the data and create a true, standard wage, but it has never happened.