Those wondering what sort of power Mayor Dick Murphy wields can look to Monday's City Council meeting for an indication. The mayor found himself on the losing end of a vote that might be a microcosm of the tug-of-war between progressive and conservative politicians.
The question was whether or not to designate a big-money public works job going out to bid as a prevailing-wage project. Doing so would increase the cost of the project, which involves major improvements to the Miramar Water Treatment Plant, by forcing the contractors and subcontractors to pay a “prevailing wage.” City staff estimated that the roughly $78 million price tag would be upped another $7 million by the higher-wage requirement. An increase in the cost of the project means a fee increase for ratepayers, and conservatives generally don't like rate increases.
The prevailing wage, basically, is an average wage earned by different types of skilled construction workers in a particular region. So, for example, the state and federal governments determine different prevailing wages for pipe fitters and electricians by crunching wage data provided by contractors in San Diego County.
We don't know if Murphy attempted any arm-twisting; if he did, it didn't work. Only his biggest fan on the City Council, Jim Madaffer, joined him in opposing the prevailing wage designation. Six council members—Ralph Inzunza, Michael Zucchet, Donna Frye, Charles Lewis, Brian Maienschein and Toni Atkins—voted for it. Scott Peters was absent. Significantly, Maienschein, a Republican, crossed over to the progressives' side, probably swayed by the Associated General Contractors executive board's support of prevailing wage on this project.
The AGC's support of the proposal, which didn't win the backing of city staff or the city attorney, was based on the thinking that standardizing wages helps local contractors win these bids because large outside companies from areas with lower costs of living won't be able to pay lower wages and low-ball their bids.
One city insider called the vote a “ray of hope” for progressives, who later this year will be pushing another concept: the “living wage.” The living wage is a higher minimum wage foisted on companies that do business with the city. The idea is to ensure that firms benefiting from public money pay their employees a salary that takes them above the poverty level. The prevailing wage vote might indicate willingness on the part of the City Council to support a living wage proposal.
Some of the arguments can be applied to both concepts, such as the notion that if you invest in higher pay up front, the economy benefits over the long haul. However, that same insider said the AGC's support made the vote less than earthshaking. Who knows what Inzunza and Lewis, who have proven to be unpredictable swingmen, would have done if the AGC had pitched a fit over it. Perhaps people like Maienschein and Inzunza are cozying up to the unions, whose leaders love wage increases of all shapes and stripes, as they contemplate their next political steps. Food for thought.
Whatever the reason, we're glad they backed the prevailing wage, for we at CityBeat are generally supportive of efforts to lift the standard of living for working people. We do believe society—particularly the taxpayers—benefits in the long run by helping people afford such staples as family health care. And, in the case of the prevailing wage, we get the added benefit of leveling the playing field for local contractors. If San Diego-area companies have a chance to compete with large outside firms, there's a better chance those city dollars will stay here. High-quality local jobs—that's the idea, right?
We're pleased that Inzunza's motion not only designated the Miramar job a prevailing wage project but also kicked the concept over to the City Council's Rules, Finance and Intergovernmental Relations Committee for further policy consideration. The committee will mull the possibilities: Prevailing wage for all city water and sewer projects? All capital improvement projects? All projects getting general fund money? The debate over the government's responsibility to ensure decent wages is an important one. We're glad the City Council agrees.