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Contractors prep for local preference showdown

By Sean Ryan

sean.ryan@dailyreporter.com

A Tuesday court hearing represents the one chance contractors will have to kill a Milwaukee bidding preference because city leaders remain steadfast in their support.

The chances are slim to none the Milwaukee Common Council will reverse the law, said Richard Wanta, executive director of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association.

The association is considering asking the Wisconsin Legislature to prohibit municipalities from enacting a preference, but there is almost no chance that will happen until after the November 2010 elections, he said.

“We have to do whatever we can to protect the marketplace,” Wanta said. “If it requires going to Madison to prohibit bid preferences, we are seriously considering doing that.”

The city in August began awarding contracts to Milwaukee-based companies if their bids were within 5 percent of the low bid for a project as long as the difference in cost did not exceed $25,000. Underground Pipeline Construction Inc., New Berlin, and American Sewer Services Inc., Rubicon, sued the city Oct. 5 after the city law led to the companies losing contracts to Milwaukee-based MJ Construction Inc.

Milwaukee Alderman Jim Bohl, who voted against the city law that created the local preference, said he does not think any of the eight aldermen who supported the law have changed their mind.

“I think that it is one that, fortunately or unfortunately,” he said, “both sides have dug their heels in.”

Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines said he sees no reason — short of a city attorney recommendation — to consider changing the local preference, even though it prompted the lawsuit. He said he supports the rule because it directs Milwaukee contracting money to city companies.

“We believe that we have solid ground and substantive merit behind our legislation and policy,” Hines said, “and we feel confident in our city attorney’s ability to advise us.”

If the city won’t change its laws, the Wisconsin Legislature could hold the trump card with a bill prohibiting the local preference, Wanta said. But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who approved the local preference, is a potential candidate for state governor, Wanta said.

WUCA will not spend the time and money lobbying the Legislature until the association knows who will be governor next year, Wanta said.

“If Barrett runs for governor and he is elected,” Wanta said, “he could veto it.”

With the state route at least one year away, the only immediate chance to remove the bid preference is Tuesday’s court hearing. Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge William Pocan will decide if the city can continue using the 5 percent preference until he rules in the lawsuit challenging the preference.

If the judge prohibits the preference during the lawsuit, the law could be off the books until after next year’s elections, Wanta said. If the judge allows the preference during the lawsuit, Wanta said, he will keep pressing state and federal agencies to ban the practice for projects that use state and federal money.

“We don’t want the ordinance at all,” Wanta said. “We don’t want any preference of any kind.”

For updates on the Tuesday court case, come back to www.dailyreporter.com

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