Metro-East News

Insistence on union workers leads flood district to work on its own

The metro-east’s flood-prevention district plans to financially carry out projects on its own, rather than pooling money with the federal government, because of its insistence on using union workers for levee-restoration projects.

The Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District plans to move forward with some levee restoration work on its own no matter the cost because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refuses to ensure union works carry out construction work.

More than $170 million of levee restoration work has been done, but $272 million worth of work remains, which includes work on cutoff walls, relief wells and seepage controls, to address the underground portion of the levee restoration, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

For most of the levee work, not on federally owned land, the federal government has promised to pick up 65 percent of the costs, with 35 percent coming from local contributions.

Since 2013, however, the Corps of Engineers and the flood prevention district have disagreed on whether project labor agreements should be required from contractors who bid on work. The flood prevention district wants project labor agreements included, but the corps has said federal policy is to allow contractors to bid on projects either with or without PLAs.

Col. Anthony Mitchell, the commander of the St. Louis District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said it is up to contractors on whether to use unionized workers on federally funded projects.

“The choice of whether and how to use union workers is one made by the construction contractor,” Mitchell wrote in an email to the BND. “Federal law and regulations require full and open competition, and we have established a path forward that would allow federal contractors to use PLAs if the agreements meet those federal requirements.”

However, the flood prevention district does not want to commit money to projects if there is no guarantee the work would be done by contractors with PLAs in place.

Chuck Etwert, chief supervisor of Construction and the Works for the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District, defended the inclusion of project labor agreements, as they would guarantee prevailing wage, but would prevent work stoppages.

“Everything we’ve bid, everything has come in cheaper with a PLA,” said Etwert, referring to engineers’ estimates compared to bid results for district projects to help bring the levees to a 100-year flood protection level.

To ensure levee restoration work moves forward toward a 500-year flood protection level, the flood prevention district now plans to carry out work on its own.

Resolution passed

In a resolution passed by the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council earlier this year, the council expressed its intent to work toward restoring the levees to the federally authorized 500-year flood level.

The resolution said the Army Corps of Engineers was “unwilling to comply with local workforce policies … (and) dramatic progress can be made when the pace and cost of construction is determined locally.”

Under the resolution, the council said it would take total responsibility for the project design and construction.

“This includes using current surplus funds and judicious borrowing to maximize the available funding for capital expenditures on flood protection through the year 2020,” the resolution said.

In 2009, to help pay for levee restoration, St. Clair, Madison and Monroe counties instituted a 25 percent sales tax, which brings in about $11 million a year.

The flood protection district estimates it can issue $55 million to $65 million worth of bonds for future work, Etwert said.

“We will spend the money we have available,” Etwert said. “The council will do whatever it can with funds we have.”

The flood prevention district also said it would seek financial participation from the Wood River Drainage and Levee District, the Metro East Sanitary District, the Prairie DuPont Drainage and Levee District, and the Fish Lake Drainage and Levee District to generate additional money for the levee restoration projects.

Walter Greathouse, the director of operations for the Metro East Sanitary District, said the district runs a lean operation as it maintains the ditches and pumps associated within its 100 square miles.

Its primary source of revenue is property taxes. It also generates cash through easement fees.

For 2015, the sanitary district put together a $5.4 million spending plan, according to budget documents.

“To the best of my knowledge we don’t have the money available to help with restoration,” Greathouse said. “In order to raise more income, we would have to change our tax rate. But our tax rate is extremely low. We would have to find some way to raise more money.”

Greathouse would not comment on the PLA issue.

Seeking work-in-kind credits

The flood protection district says projects it carries out now would count toward its 35 percent cost share of the levee work needed to protect the area from a 500-year flood.

Mike Petersen, spokesman for the St. Louis Army Corps of Engineers, said for corps projects, local sponsors can either commit to providing 35 percent of the cost, or provide work-in-kind.

However, with the work-in-kind approach, the actual work, whether it be design, construction, attaining real estate easements, or all three, would need to be completed before the federal government can commit to funding the rest of the work, Petersen said.

Petersen added local project sponsors would still need to contribute cash toward the project equal to 5 percent of the cost.

Work done by the district council would still need design approval from the Corps of Engineers, Etwert said.

“We’re working with them to make sure anything we do at this point going forward will be counted for work-in-kind,” Etwert said.

The flood prevention district council is made up of nine members from the county boards of Monroe, St. Clair and Madison counties. The county board chairman of each county is able to appoint three members to the prevention council.

Etwert said the council’s first goal is to finish seven remaining projects in order to bring the levees up to the 100-year flood level before doing additional work to bring the levees up to the 500-year flood protection level.

Restoring the levees to the 100-year flood level allows them to be accredited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and avoids higher flood insurance rates for area property owners. The Army Corps of Engineers also was authorized to increase the levee protection level to the 500-year flood level.

Etwert said the flood prevention district does not have the financial capacity on its own to bring the levees to the 500-year flood protection level.

Federal government work

The federal government did pay the full cost of the Chain of Rocks Levee restoration because the federal government owns and operates that levee. Work on a segment of the Wood River Levee is also being fully paid for by the federal government. That segment is associated with the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, which is federally-owned and operated.

Col. Mitchell said the Corps remains committed to restoring the metro-east levees, but can’t move forward on its work until it has a commitment from the flood protection district. He added the corps has experience and expertise on working on the levees.

“The Corps is authorized to provide 65 percent of the funding needed to accomplish this restoration, subject to future appropriations,” Mitchell said. “However, if the local sponsor chooses to, there are various means by which they can pursue the remaining work for the original authorized level of protection without federal funds. The Corps would maintain regulatory and approval responsibility for work on the federally-built levees.”

Contact reporter Joseph Bustos at jbustos@bnd.com or 618-239-2451. Follow him on Twitter: @JoeBReporter.

At a glance

▪  $272 million in levee restoration work remaining to protect the area from a 500-year flood, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

▪  The federal government usually chips in 65 percent of the cost of restoring levees on non-federal land. The rest would come from local resources.

▪  The Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District is insisting union workers be used for any projects with local money.

▪  The flood prevention district plans to account for its 35 percent share of levee restoration work with work-in-kind projects, rather than cash.

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