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Milwaukee County residency rule under fire

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//February 11, 2014//

Milwaukee County residency rule under fire

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//February 11, 2014//

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Legislation put forward by Republican lawmakers Tuesday would abolish a Milwaukee County ordinance requiring that a certain percentage of contractors hired for local public projects live in the county.

Assembly Bill 750, introduced Tuesday by state Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, also would take away local governments’ ability to set a minimum wage for workers employed on public projects. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance Thursday requiring a minimum wage of $11.33 be paid to workers on some county contracts.

The county’s residency requirements, meanwhile, have been on the books since 1995. For certain projects that are paid for solely through county money, the rules stipulate that at least 50 percent of the workers hired must be Milwaukee County residents.

Kapenga could not be immediately reached for comment.

His bill was scheduled to be discussed Wednesday by the Assembly Committee on Labor. A hearing date coming so quickly after the introduction of a bill is a sign the proposal is on a fast track through the Legislature.

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, who controls to a great extent what legislation moves forward in his chamber, said Tuesday that he will not support the bill, at least in its current form. He said he does not want the Legislature to intervene every time local officials make a decision that state lawmakers do not like.

Vos said he plans to work with Kapenga on finding a version of the bill that might be more acceptable. He also said Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele still could veto the county’s minimum-wage ordinance.

A spokesman for Abele declined to comment Tuesday.

After the minimum-wage ordinance was approved, Abele would not say whether he would veto it but did issue a written statement explaining concerns over the proposal’s possible cost to taxpayers.

County Supervisor David Bowen noted the minimum wage proposal received his support along with 11 others on the Milwaukee County’s 18-member board. That means, unless someone’s vote changes, supporters of the ordinance could override a veto.

Milwaukee County’s residency rules have been a subject of debate for a variety of reasons. In October, Greg High, director of the architecture, engineering and environmental services section of the county’s facilities management division, warned officials that the policy might violate a state statute.

According to the statute, “a political subdivision may not use a bidding method that gives preference based on the geographic location of the bidder or that uses criteria other than the lowest responsible bidder in awarding a contract.”

The subchapter that includes the statute, however, does not define “responsible bidder,” and supervisors who support the county’s residency goals have pointed to that as a way to sustain the program. A responsible bidder, the supervisors have said, would be one that adhered to the county’s residency goals.

An audit released in July also found that few of the companies that were supposed to be abiding by the rules were submitting required reports and that the county’s oversight of compliance with the policy was lax.

Even so, Bowen said the residency requirement is justifiable. Without it, construction companies probably would hire even fewer county residents, particularly minorities, than they do now, he said.

“This,” he said, “is just to make sure contractors are diligent about having a diverse workforce.”

Despite the reluctance Vos expressed Tuesday to interfering in local matters, Republican lawmakers voted in favor of legislation last spring that would force the County Board to run on a reduced budget and would let voters decide in a binding referendum if supervisors’ salaries should be cut roughly in half. In another change that drew complaints from advocates of local control, the Legislature voted for a budget provision preventing local governments from setting residency requirements for city employees.

The city of Milwaukee has temporarily suspended enforcement of its residency requirements pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by police and fire unions. The city has contended the Legislature’s elimination of those requirements goes against the Wisconsin Constitution’s home rule provision, which gives local governments control over local affairs.

Bowen said AB 750 would be one more be swipe at the provision.

“It’s a complete overreach of state government,” he said. “They are trying to stop local entities from implementing the standards that they see fit.”


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