By CARL GREEN
Collinsville – Metro East labor and government officials are blasting the Army Corps of Engineers for slowing the rebuilding of Mississippi River levees and refusing to use Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) on the work.
The Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District, representing Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties, sent the Corps a letter last week calling for speedier work and better cooperation on labor issues. The letter was signed by a bipartisan group of regional labor and business leaders, public officials and members of Congress.
The letter states that the Corps has:
- Dragged its feet on vital parts of the project, including a cutoff wall just east of the Mel Price Lock and Dam in East Alton, even though the cutoff wall is needed to solve seepage problems caused by the Corps’ own design for the dam. Other slowed sections are at East St. Louis and Monroe County.
- Consistently refused to adopt PLAs for its parts of the project, leaving open the possibility that work could go to ill-prepared, out-of-state crews instead of well-trained local union workers. The Flood District’s policy is to use a PLA whenever local tax money is part of the project.
State Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton), who signed the letter, described working with the Corps as “a disappointing bureaucratic entanglement.”
“As the sponsor of the legislation enacted to generate the needed funding for this project, it has been my firm commitment from the beginning to use our skilled local workforce,” Haine said.
The levees project became necessary in 2007 when the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Corps ruled the levees needed to be upgraded to meet the 100-year level of flood protection required for FEMA accreditation, or risk higher flood insurance rates for residents and businesses in the area.
A 100-year flood is one that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.
Regional leaders responded quickly with creation of the Flood District and establishment of a quarter-cent regional sales tax that generates about $11 million a year.
Using money generated through the sales tax and PLAs administered by the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, the Flood District has forged ahead on the improvements for which it has been able to secure Corps approval.
STALLED CUTOFF WALL
But certain parts of the project still need the Corps’ participation, such as the $40 million cutoff wall by the dam. That Corps has refused to consider a PLA for the project and – in a model of indecisiveness – has developed four different drawings for the job.
Metro East leaders had hoped U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the assistant majority leader, could use his political clout to break the logjam, but it hasn’t happened and Durbin, as a matter of policy, did not sign the letter.
Durbin maintains he has been working with the Corps to move the project forward and met last month with Col. Anthony Mitchell, the local Corps commander.
“I strongly urged Col. Mitchell to require Project Labor Agreements on the levee improvement projects in the Metro East,” Durbin said in a press release. “The local residents have taken the unique step of taxing themselves to make these improvements – an extraordinary move which deserves heightened consideration from the Corps.”
PLAs benefit contractors and workers alike by carefully matching manpower needs to the project at hand and ensuring that trained union workers will get the project done on time and one budget.
Corps officials have told local officials they oppose the use of PLAs because they can reduce competition among contractors and increase costs.
But Metro East leaders note PLAs have a record of reducing costs by keeping projects on schedule, averting strikes and ensuring that work is done by properly trained workers. They say there has been no lack of competition for the levee work.
Dale Stewart, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, said he was disappointed with Durbin’s reluctance to sign the letter.
Christina Mulka, a spokeswoman for Durbin, said the Senator “has a policy of not signing onto letters from outside groups” but will continue to press the district’s issues and frustration to the Corps.
ROLLING ALONG DESPITE THE CORPS
Les Sterman, former administrator of the Flood Council and now a consultant on the project for the Building Trades, said the sections of the project undertaken locally under PLAs are rolling along well.
“The bids came in under the estimate, and the projects are moving along,” Sterman said
The Corps has never agreed to a PLA anywhere, he said, but Obama’s Executive Order gives the agency every reason and authorization to change that policy.
Kern, the St. Clair County Board chairman and a member of the Flood District board, said the district is achieving its goal of restoring the levees to 100-year-flood protection by 2015, despite the Corps’ lack of cooperation.
Letter signed by labor and political leaders
Metro East labor and political leaders signed on to a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, expressing frustration over the Corps dragging anchor on the Metro East levees project and the agency’s refusal to consider project labor agreements for the work.
Local officials who signed the letter included:
- Dale Stewart, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council.
- Tim Garvey, CEO of Southern Illinois Builders Association.
- Dennis Wilmsmeyer, president of Leadership Council, Southwestern Illinois.
- Dan Maher, president of the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council.
- U.S. Representatives Bill Enyart (D-Belleville) and Rodney Davis (R-Taylorville).
- State Senators Bill Haine (D-Alton) and James Clayborne (D-East St. Louis).
- State Representatives Dan Beiser (D-Alton), Jay Hoffman (D-Belleville), Eddie Lee Jackson (D-East St. Louis) and Jerry Costello II (D-Red Bud).
- County Board Chairmen Alan Dunstant (Madison County), Mark Kern (St. Clair County) and Delbert Wittenauer (Monroe County.
- Mayors Alvin Parks (East St. Louis), Brant Walker (Alton), Herb Simmons (East Carondelet), Ed Hagnauer (Granite City), Gary Cornwell (Cahokia), Fred Ufert (Wood River) and Kevin Hutchinson (Columbia).