Loves Park deconstruction debate escalates

By Stuart R. Wahlin
Staff Writer

Carpenters Local 792 has filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor, seeking to force a ruling that will clarify a recent change to the state’s Prevailing Wage Act, which took effect Jan. 1.

The controversy began when the City of Loves Park contracted Comprehensive Community Solutions, Inc. (CCS), the parent organization of YouthBuild Rockford, to deconstruct seven buildings on the former Hines Lumber Company site at 721 Pearl Ave.

CCS employed five of its YouthBuild graduates as part of a training program for green jobs made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Rather than opting for demolition, which would send building debris to the landfill, the city chose the cheaper and more eco-friendly route of deconstruction, which aims to salvage as much material as possible for recycling or reuse.

The land, nestled between an existing park and a playground, will be conveyed to the park district once the site has been cleared.

CCS was initially awarded a 20-day, $19,000 contract, but Carpenters Local 792 put its foot down, arguing prevailing wages should apply to the public project, because the union views it as demolition, for which prevailing wages are required under the act. CCS Founder and Executive Director Kerry Knodle, however, is of the opinion deconstruction is not the same as demolition, but said deconstruction is not specifically mentioned in the amended act.

Local 792 filed a federal lawsuit March 11, asserting that prevailing wages should be paid for the project, and alleging that union contractor CCS Construction, LLC, which filed for bankruptcy last year, is now operating as CCS, Inc., and must therefore abide by a collective bargaining agreement. The lawsuit seeks a $48,785.76 arbitration award. (See “Lawsuit by carpenters union targets YouthBuild program” in the March 24-30 issue).

Knodle said he received notification the afternoon of April 2 from the Department of Labor, requesting records and information related to the Loves Park project. The department has requested the names, labor classifications, addresses, phone numbers and Social Security numbers of the deconstruction workers, as well as hourly cash wages and benefits, hours worked each day, copies of cancelled payroll checks related to the project, and identification of project funding. Similar information was requested regarding any subcontractors employed for the project.

“If I had employed a carpenter there, and was paying that carpenter 20 bucks-an-hour when the prevailing wage is 34, then I’d have a problem, assuming that the project was subject to the law at that time,” Knodle explained. “In our case, if you look on the list, the Winnebago County prevailing wage list that they have on their Web site, there is no job title, anything close to the job title, that we have for our employees that were working up there.”

The notice Knodle received notes, “Pursuant to P.A. 96-0437, effective January 1, 2010, a public body or other entity that fails to provide proper written notice to its public works contractor that a project is subject to Illinois prevailing wage requirements is, itself, liable for interest, penalties and fines as stated under Section 4 (a-3) of the Act.”

The City of Loves Park, however, is neither named in the lawsuit, nor the labor complaint.

Knodle said he isn’t so sure the recent changes—specifically regarding demolition—to the state’s Prevailing Wage Act apply in this instance, because the agreement with Loves Park was signed in December 2009, before the amendment took effect.

“At issue is whether the change in the act applies, given that it was executed prior to the changes,” Knodle indicated. “And then, of course, the second piece is, I guess, to seek clarification of, what is this work that’s being done, and what labor classification is it? I mean, we created a new classification because it doesn’t fit into carpenter or laborer or electrician—you know, the standard sort of construction job titles that are out there.”

Regardless, Knodle said CCS will cooperate with the department, but noted the outcome could set a precedent.

“This potentially has, or could have, a significant chilling effect across the entire state of Illinois on deconstruction projects if, in fact, somehow, the carpenters prevailed in this quest of theirs to defeat the whole green-job movement that’s going on here in Illinois,” Knodle asserted.

Meantime, as a result of the disagreement, the City of Loves Park has walked away from the green deconstruction, and the projected will instead be completed by demolition.

“The taxpayers lose, the environment loses, the five new jobs that we created are gone, at least for the moment, until we find some other projects to work on,” Knodle responded, “and it’s sad all the way around that they chose to take this route of get-out-the-big-stick before you even try to resolve it in any other way.”

Brad Long, business manager for Local 792 and president of the Northwestern Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council, has stated in the daily the intent of the complaint is not to punish CCS, but rather to force the Department of Labor to make a ruling on the muddied issue. Knodle, however, alleged more sinister motives.

“The prevailing wage complaint certainly will, at some point, give us clarification,” he acknowledged. “The federal lawsuit is nothing but punishment. That has nothing to do with how, or how much, the workers get paid. That is trying to extract, essentially, a $50,000 fine out of a not-for-profit corporation. So, there’s nothing clarifying about a federal lawsuit. That is pure retribution.”

Meantime, CCS has enlisted the help of former First Deputy State’s Attorney Chuck Prorok to defend the non-profit in the federal lawsuit.

Knodle indicated a fund-raiser is in the works, and that CCS is accepting donations for a legal defense fund.

“At this point, we don’t know how far, or how long, this is gonna drag out. Obviously, the carpenters union has not made any overtures about dropping the lawsuit,” he said. “We don’t have a reserve fund set aside to defend ourselves against frivolous lawsuits, and our insurance policy that covers employment practice stuff does not cover this.

“We have no money to pay for the legal defense stuff, so we are seeking contributions from people who would like to help out with that, or with our deconstruction and green work in general,” Knodle added.

More complaints in the works?

Carpenters Local 792 also recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to public bodies involved in a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) project in Rockford.

LEED is a U.S. Green Building Council rating system based on sustainability of building materials, water and energy efficiency, and other factors.

In 2008, Winnebago County agreed to supply $12,500 in pre-development funding, and the City of Rockford and Neighborhood Housing Services of Freeport are providing project financing.

Planning to construct two LEED-certified homes—the first zero-net-energy houses in Rockford—CCS purchased vacant lots at the corner of Rockton Avenue and Whitman Street.

Mark Burger, principal consultant for Oak Park-based Kestrel Development, LLC, which is collaborating on the project, noted, “These homes will not only be affordable to buy, but homeowners will save more each year as energy costs rise.”

The homes are specifically geared toward city and county employees under their respective employer-assisted housing programs.

Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) has applauded the project, stating in a press release: “These homes reflect Rockford’s focus on energy efficiencies and green technology. Their addition to the neighborhood will provide the type of housing solution that will act as a model for future growth in our housing market.”

Foundation work has already begun for the LEED project, but more headaches could be on the way for CCS.

Local 792’s FOIA request asks for copies of the request for bids, including specifications, submitted bid tabulations, the contract, prevailing wage requirement information, a description of funding and the monthly payroll for general and subcontractors.

The request states: “These documents are requested to determine if the project is covered by the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act 820 ILCS 130/1-12, or the Federal Davis Bacon Act as amended, 40 U.S.C.276a-276a-5. Once coverage is determined, the documents will be submitted to the appropriate enforcement agency to avoid duplication of this request.”

“Here we go again,” Knodle responded. “Apparently, the carpenters are finding additional rocks they wanna turn over.

“I did confirm with [Development Programs Manager] Vicki Manson at the city that they sent a similar thing to the City of Rockford, asking for information on this Rockton-Whitman project,” he added.

“The funding agreement we have with the City of Rockford for that project specifically says this is not subject to the Davis-Bacon Prevailing Wage Act if it doesn’t involve construction of 12 or more units,” Knodle noted. “If this was somehow subject to prevailing wage, you would think pretty clearly that the City of Rockford would have specified that.”

Knodle said CCS is acting as the general contractor, and is subcontracting out work related to the project.

Despite phone calls and e-mails to Local 792 business representatives Brad Long and Dan Jansen, union representatives did not respond to requests for comment prior to the advised publication deadline.

From the April 7-13, 2010 issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!