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Local preference fight fails again

By Sean Ryan

Contractors trying to win public works contracts in Milwaukee are continuing their attempts on multiple fronts to overturn the city’s local preference law.

American Sewer Services Inc., Rubicon, and United Sewer and Water Inc., Menomonee Falls, on Wednesday lost the fourth challenge to the city’s decision to award a contract to Milwaukee-based M.J. Construction Inc. because of the city’s local preference.

According to the preference, Milwaukee can award a contract to a local company if that company’s bid is within 5 percent, or $25,000, of the low bid.

American Sewer on Feb. 2 submitted the low bid of $349,175 for a city water main project., but the city recommended the contract go to M.J., which submitted the second-lowest bid of $354,931. It is the fourth contract M.J. has won because of the preference law since it took effect in August. United Sewer’s bid was $382,263. City charter allows any bidder to appeal an award decision.

The city’s Public Works Contract Appeals Committee on Wednesday voted 2-0 to reject appeals of the contract award by American Sewer and United Sewer, said Charles Palmer, attorney representing American Sewer and United Sewer.

But the battle against the local preference is being waged on other fronts, including in Milwaukee City Hall, the state Capitol and Milwaukee County Circuit Court, where American Sewer and Underground Pipeline Construction Inc., New Berlin, sued the city over the rule. So far, builders have failed in every attempt to overturn the law.

“We’re trying 10 different things, to be honest with you, to try to do something about this thing,” said Richard Wanta, executive director of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association.

Palmer said he will incorporate into the contractors’ lawsuit some new arguments he made Wednesday to the city appeals committee. For example, he said, the city charter has a provision requiring contracts be awarded to the lowest bidder.

The city and builders are scheduled to face off in court April 26 before Judge William Pocan.

Brian Mitchell, WUCA’s legislative representative, said he is working with the state Legislature to drum up support for a state law change that would prohibit the preference. But nothing will get introduced until 2011, at the earliest, he said, because the Legislature goes into recess in late April.

“We could discuss it,” Mitchell said. “We could highlight it. But the problem is: In terms of a legislative action, that’s where we are, realistically, at this point.”

Mitchell also is lobbying at Milwaukee City Hall to see if he can get aldermen to oppose the local preference, which passed as part of a larger law on an 8-7 vote.

The contractors and WUCA also are asking the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to reverse its decision to allow the rule on projects that receive state loans, he said.

“I think it’s just because it’s vulnerable on so many fronts, really,” Mitchell said. “And it really speaks to the fact that there’s so much wrong with it.”

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