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Pa. Districts Seek Relief From Building-Wage System

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Pennsylvania school officials could get long-awaited relief from a prevailing-wage system that they say inflates local school-construction costs by as much as $100 million a year.

The state department of labor and industry wants to replace the current system, which bases the wages that government agencies pay for construction on regional collective bargaining agreements negotiated by unions.

Instead, officials propose using the agency's survey of union and nonunion wages for common construction-job categories to set new county-by-county wage scales. The change could substantially lower school building costs, especially in rural areas.

"There's a situation now where in our 67 counties, prevailing wages are set by what's going on in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh," the state's two biggest cities, said Scott Burkett, the spokesman for the labor department.

Construction-industry union representatives dispute the contention that pay levels are inflated and have taken legal action to stop a state effort to adjust the wage scale.

"Reforming prevailing-wage law has been one of our highest priorities," said Tom Gentzel, the assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "We're closer than we've ever been before."

Local Costs

School districts offer plenty of examples of how they say the state's current prevailing-wage law, which dates to 1961, is pushing their costs higher than necessary.

The 9,538-student Altoona area school system, 120 miles east of Pittsburgh, is now building an elementary school and renovating two others. The project, which is being paid for by a school bond, will cost about $18 million.

School officials maintain that they are paying up to 20 percent more in labor costs than the usual local wages because the district must pay a prevailing wage that is based on pay scales in Pittsburgh.

"We've been complaining about prevailing wages for a long time," said George J. Cardone, an assistant superintendent of the Altoona district. "We're just happy the state is pressing for a fair and equitable way."

State lawmakers have tried, almost annually, to revise the wage law. They have failed each time.

"Typically, a bill is introduced and there's little action because opposition tends to be emotional and pretty focused," said David Atkinson, a senior aide to Senate President Pro Tem Robert C. Jubelirer, a Republican.

Earlier this year, the Senate killed a bill that would have made the prevailing wage a local option.

"There was no Democratic support," Mr. Atkinson said.

But a plan pushed by Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, is generating guarded interest from some Democrats because it would preserve the prevailing-wage system.

"In the past, schools have asked to completely abandon prevailing wages, and they've failed," said Rep. Ronald R. Cowell, the Democratic co-chairman of the education committee.

Opposition Rises

Unions, in what traditionally has been a strong union state, however, remain opposed to Mr. Ridge's plan. They say it goes beyond the authority granted the labor department in the prevailing-wage law.

They have filed a grievance with the state prevailing-wage panel challenging the labor department's proposed county-by-county formula for new wages.

But even if the wage scale changes, union officials say the schools are in for a disappointment if they think they will automatically realize huge savings.

They point to studies that show costs have increased in states where prevailing wages have been eliminated. In part, that is apparently due to fewer bids from contractors. And the absence of a prevailing wage often encourages cost overruns, Mr. Schaeffer added.

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