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Prevailing wage debate shifts to volunteers

Paul Snyder

A failed attempt to save six sheds near Baraboo is now a rallying point for those who argue changes to the state’s prevailing wage law could cripple volunteer projects.

But those people do not understand the law, said Terry McGowan, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139.

“If people want to be mad at prevailing wage laws, be made at them for the right reasons,” he said. “This has to do with federal law; it’s nothing to do with the state.”

The Baraboo-based Badger Steam & Gas Engine Club, an organization that collects and restores old agricultural equipment, earlier this month tried to save six sheds on Highway 12 for storage, said Robert Coates, the group’s president.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is expanding the highway in the area, and Coates said the 30-foot-by-60-foot sheds were marked for demolition. The group offered to take the sheds off the property and rebuild them on group-owned land.

McGowan said everyone agreed to the transfer, and he volunteered some Operating Engineers apprentices to help with the move. But the Highway 12 project uses enough federal money to trigger federal prevailing wage laws, which prevent volunteer work.

The sheds were demolished because the group needed volunteers to move the sheds.

“It would have been a windfall for us,” Coates said. “But it’s not as though we’re suffering without them.

Everyone’s just disappointed we couldn’t get it done.”

Yet some lawmakers and policy watchdog groups are saying the failed relocation highlights the dangers of proposed changes to the state’s prevailing wage law in the 2009-11 state budget. Particularly, the groups worry a reduction in the state’s prevailing wage threshold from $234,000 to $2,000 for multiple-trade projects, which matches the federal requirement, could force volunteer organizations such as Habitat for Humanity to pay prevailing wages on projects.

The potential damage to volunteer operations increases as the prevailing wage threshold decreases, said Rich Eggleston, communications and community outreach coordinator for the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities

“When you include private projects that receive public money in the proposal,” he said, “you have a problem.”

But McGowan said Eggleston and other opponents to the changes are confusing federal law with state law.

“You put that out there and suddenly it becomes that old battle cry of, ‘What about the children?’ and how volunteers can’t build playgrounds,” he said. “Volunteer work is exempted from the (state) law and the changes, and if I’ve got to spell that out to everyone, so be it.”

Dick Jones, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, agreed.

“We have looked into it,” he said. “It’s not an issue. If you’re not paid for labor, the prevailing wage law would not apply to you, and our reading of the law would not change that.”

Eggleston said the changes still make him uneasy. He said the state can claim prevailing wage laws do not apply to volunteer work, but he questions whether that will be the case.

“I would almost guarantee that somewhere along the way, they’ll miss something,” he said. “These people don’t like to admit mistakes.”

But McGowan said any debate about the changes must center on the reality of the law and the budget bill.

“If they have issues with proposals, fine, let’s sit around a table and talk about it,” he said. “But don’t just make things up.”

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