The Santa Barbara City Council Tuesday afternoon determined the appropriate dollar amount for the city’s capital construction projects subject to a requirement for a project labor agreement.

The council voted 4-2 with one abstention to authorize the use of project labor agreements (PLA) on city public works projects having the value of more than $5 million.

The vote also directed city staff to develop programs for local-hire preferences to give advantages to local contractors, and bring those approaches back to the council for consideration at a future meeting.

City staff defines “local” as the Tri-County area, said Public Works Director Rebecca Bjork.

Councilman Gregg Hart, Mayor Cathy Murillo and council members Eric Friedman and Oscar Gutierrez voted in favor of the motion.

Opposing it were council members Randy Rowse and Kristen Sneddon, while Councilman Jason Dominguez abstained.

“Way too much of the work is going to out-of-the-area contractors and workers,” said Hart, who made the motion. “Most of the work the city of Santa Barbara does by dollar value is being done by out-of-the-area contractors that are not invested in the community, don’t have the same concern about the quality product, and the money that we spend, taxpayer dollars on those out-of-town contractors go out of the area — that’s the issue, that’s why we are having this conversation.’

According to city staff, about 66 percent of the city’s public works projects are awarded to non-union contractors, and about 60 percent of the city’s public works projects go to contractors located within 40 miles of Santa Barbara.

Rowse said projects are being built “well, on-time and in-budget.”

“Most of our contractors, and certainly our major group of employees, are not-union currently in this town, but those contractors don’t exclude union workers,” Rowse said. “What are we trying to fix? If we vote for a PLA today, we are going to be going against the local established contractors who have been here for decades.”

Sneddon said she supports unions and union apprenticeship training programs.

“Status quo doesn’t hurt unions,” she said. “The change hurts local business.”

A PLA is a collective-bargaining agreement that establishes standard terms applicable to a specific construction project or category of projects, Bjork said. It’s a pre-hire agreement between the union and the city that is negotiated ahead of sending a project to bid.

Typical components of a PLA include work conditions, hiring procedures, wages and benefits, management rights, procedures to prevent work stoppages, dispute resolutions and frequent drug and alcohol testing, Bjork said.

PLAs commonly include provisions to establish uniform work conditions across each of the construction trades providing craft labor on the covered project.

“This will allow union and non-union shops to bid on projects,” Friedman said. “This is about local workers, and prioritizing local workers.”

The city currently accepts the lowest bid that meets the requirements of the construction project. Winning bidders may be non-union or sometimes not based in Santa Barbara.

Hart and Friedman made the proposal at a September meeting, where the majority of council members expressed interest in the potential of the PLA structure to advance local hire and local economic development objectives and directed staff to “expedite” the work necessary to bring the matter to the Ordinance Committee for consideration.

More than 30 residents, some wearing bright-colored safety vests, gathered inside the City Council chambers at City Hall.

About half of those people took to the podium to speak during public comment and read letters, both supporting and opposing PLA policies for the city. A handful of individuals shared their testimonies as a union and non-union worker.

“In the current environment…in which there are low wages and democracy is under threat, PLAs are a small but important step in reversing that,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy.

Lichtenstein’s remarks received applause from some supporters in the chamber, and Murillo reminded the audience that clapping or booing between speakers is discouraged.

Santa Barbara-based Armstrong Associates founder and CEO Earl Armstrong said he is a non-union contractor, and noted city staff’s estimations that the total cost in city staff and professional services fees associated with a PLA for a large-scale project, such as the construction of a new police headquarters, could range between $300,000 to $450,000.

“The taxpayers are going to have a real problem with this,” Armstrong said. “You are going to spend $300,000 to $400,000 just to set this up, and then you are going to pay 25 to 35 percent more for every project you do.”

Armstrong added that his business did the construction of MOXI-The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, construction of the Intraoperative Magnetic Resonance Imagery Suit at Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital, and the business was named the general contractor for the Santa Ynez Chumash Museum and Cultural Center.

Murillo said, “I have heard from a couple of people before the meeting that setting up the PLA policy will not cost $400,000 — I appreciate that staff was conservative, and I know it will come in lower than that.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Brooke Holland, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @NoozhawkNews

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.