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Napa County is honing a building policy for its $16.8 million re-entry facility for jail inmates with several goals – how to avoid strikes and a ballooning budget while promoting the hiring of local labor.

The county is negotiating a project labor agreement with the region’s unions. Union supporters say such agreements assure projects are built on-time and on-budget.

But critics say the agreements drive up the cost of projects by discouraging bids from nonunion contractors, which would hit taxpayers in the pocketbook. Each side cites examples to back up their points.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors continued looking at how to design a project labor agreement, Napa-style.

“We can hear the rhetoric that it increases costs,” board Chairman Alfredo Pedroza said. “Well, I want to find out. We have a responsibility to our taxpayers. We have a responsibility to protect labor. I understand that.”

But the clock is ticking. The county could put the project out to bid in November and begin construction in spring 2017.

The re-entry facility is to be located along Highway 221 near the Syar quarry. It won’t be a full-fledged jail, but rather a place to provide programs to prepare low-risk offenders for life outside jail.

Project labor agreements are pre-bid collective bargaining agreements negotiated with labor organizations that must be followed by contractors. They stipulate such things as wages and benefits for construction projects.

A primary benefit of project labor agreements is ensuring timely completion of public projects with easy resolutions to labor disputes, a county report said. Having a no-strike provision would avoid costly work stoppages.

But county staff remains wary that a typical project labor agreement could keep non-union contractors from bidding on the project and thus drive up costs. A December 2015 county report said the extra cost could reach $915,000. Union officials disagreed.

County staff proposed crafting an agreement that removes possible disincentives for non-union contractors to bid. For example, that might include eliminating requirements that contractors pay into union health and pension benefit plans, in addition to their own.

Supervisor Mark Luce stressed that his key goal is to make certain qualified Napa workers are offered construction jobs on the project.

“I think we have a lot to chew on just to try to make this a local hire without rewriting the world of PLAs,” Luce said.

Some speakers urged the county to go further.

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Eric Christen of Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction opposes project labor agreements. But he praised county staff for trying to go beyond what he called the usual “boilerplate” language and create a “fair” project labor agreement.

It is possible to have union and non-union contractors bidding on a project, even with a project labor agreement, Christen said.

Union speakers stressed the benefits that project labor agreements can bring for workers. Ken Miller said the day’s discussion seems to have been sidetracked by the separate issue of local hires.

“In my eyes, the purpose of a project labor agreement is to protect workers’ rights—to protect their paychecks, to protect their benefits,” Miller said.

Danny Bernardini is business manager for Napa Solano Building Trades, which favors project labor agreements and is a negotiating partner with the county on a possible local version. He told supervisors the group is ready to begin negotiations.

“I know these are new talks and unfamiliar talks and there are a lot of concerns, but that’s why we sit down and chat,” Bernardini said.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa