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COMMENTARY: Contractors and design professionals provide valuable services to public owners

Bob Barker

Bob Barker

Last week, The Daily Reporter posted an article about school districts’ referendum requests heading into the Nov. 6 election. The article, with no attribution or data to support its claim, stated: “Construction companies have also become more aggressive about pushing for higher school spending.”

This statement was surrounded by quotes from state Sen. Duey Stroebel insinuating that construction companies are self-serving by providing “so-called pre-referendum services,” and that school boards are “unethical” for employing them.

These incendiary statements require a response. Neither AGC officials nor our contractor members promote higher local K-12 school spending. These are local issues to be decided by local taxpayers under the current school-funding process. Construction companies respond as businesses by providing a service to school districts, which is not illegal or unethical.

Readers deserve a better understanding of the valuable services that construction companies provide to public bodies, particularly school districts.

With few exceptions, school districts and municipalities lack the professional capabilities to design and build construction projects. Some municipalities have design professionals on staff, but few have the capability to provide necessary pre-construction and project-management services. Very few school districts employ design professionals, and have limited on-staff capabilities when it comes to construction projects.

Given their limited capabilities, school districts and municipalities turn to outside design professionals and contractors to provide design, constructability, cost-estimating and project-management services for their projects. These are valuable public services provided at a cost subject to public scrutiny and the fiduciary obligations of public officials.

It is true that school districts in particular have relied on outside entities in the preparation of pre- and post-referendum information, which is provided to affected taxpayers. Most of us have most likely seen this sort of information if we have had a local referendum.

Subject to their fiduciary obligations, school districts have a responsibility to ensure referendum information is accurate and made available to the public. Design professionals and contractors are hired to provide the necessary services to ensure information provided to the public is accurate. The process of a public entity providing accurate and comprehensive pre-referendum information to taxpayers is not illegal or unethical.

Referendums pass and fail. When they pass or fail, some people are happy and some are unhappy. Pass or fail, school districts rely on contractors and design professionals to build their projects, provide value engineering, pre-referendum and pre-construction planning and project-management services necessary to meet the wishes and needs of local voters.

Let’s face it. Few people want to have their taxes increased. Few people like overcrowded and unsafe buildings or schools that are in need of improvement. That is why local school referendums are passing at record rates – 79 percent of those on the ballot in 2016 were approved, as reported by The Daily Reporter.

Local taxpayers should have the right to make informed decisions on whether to fund their own school projects. That is a local decision and the state Legislature should in no way restrict the rights of local voters to vote for or against local construction projects that are paid for by local taxpayer dollars.

The AGC of Wisconsin supports fairness, transparency and objectivity in public contracting. AGC members provide valuable services necessary for public officials to meet their fiduciary obligations, and protect the interests of taxpayers.

Bob Barker is executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin

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