Playing politics with the levees

Most of us don’t know the difference between a PLA and the LPGA, but PLAs – Project Labor Agreements – are so important to metro-east political leaders that they turned their backs on federal funds to help restore the Mississippi River levees.

That’s right, in fiscal 2014 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had $20.8 million in the president’s budget for levee work in Wood River, and another $12.8 million for East St. Louis. But more than two-thirds of that got reallocated to flood protection in some other state because the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council wouldn’t partner with the Corps. The flood prevention council insisted that any contract include a union-friendly PLA. The Corps said it was willing to allow PLAs but by federal guidelines couldn’t require them.

The Corps had $8.6 million for Wood River in the fiscal 2015 budget and another $9.8 million for East St. Louis. Most of those dollars also got reallocated. Not surprisingly, after turning away money two years in a row, there’s next to nothing for our levees in the federal fiscal 2016 budget.

Fortunately this fight hasn’t stopped the urgent work of bringing the metro-east levees up to the the 100-year level. That work is mostly being funded by a local quarter-cent sales tax. This fight is over longer-range plans to bring the levees up to a 500-year level.

The flood prevention council can still do in-kind work on the 500-year upgrades and let the Army Corps of Engineers do its share of the work later – if the Corps can get any money allocated then. But why go that cumbersome, uncertain route when the Corps had millions of dollars ready to spend?

This decision has the fingerprints of St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern and Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan all over it. They would rather stick up for their union supporters than act for the overall good of the region.

The irony is that most work done in this area on Corps projects is done by union labor. The low bid might have included a PLA. This standoff means fewer jobs in the metro-east, union or otherwise, and less flood protection.