Prevailing wage inequities tackled by Middletown Board

By Geoff Samuels
At last Tuesday’s Town of Middletown Board meeting, Supervisor Marge Miller said she had met with Assemblymen Cliff Crouch, Pete Lopez, Senator James Seward, Davenport Supervisor Denis Valente, and Department of Labor representative Tim Grippen in an effort to unravel the problem of the large discrepancy in the state’s prevailing wages across Delaware County.

Prevailing wages, sometimes called union wages, were first established shortly after the Civil War when Congress enacted the eight-hour day for any work being done on public projects, and since workers in those days were paid on a daily basis, that in essence set the hourly wage.

In 1891, Kansas was the first state to pass its own prevailing wage law, followed in 1894 by New York, and soon after by six other states. In 1931, during the Great Depression, the Davis-Bacon act was passed by Congress to set wage levels for all federal public projects over $2,000. Since then, prevailing wage laws have remained one of the more controversial aspects of government mandates.

Wage discrepancies
According to Miller, prevailing wages in the eastern end of Delaware County, which lies within New York State Wage District 11, are sometimes as much as three or four times higher than those in District 2 in the western end of the county. She told the town board and meeting attendees that according to Department of Labor representative Tim Griffin, no one has ever asked about any specific procedure or process to tackle this issue.

“(We’ve) heard a lot of complaints,” said Miller, “and what we did was to put on the table the statistical reasons for why the eastern end of Delaware County should be consistent with the rest of Delaware County in terms of the prevailing wage.”

“When you look at the census data, median income and housing values, and then compare our numbers with those of Ulster and Sullivan county’s, it makes for a pretty compelling argument she said. “Some of those categories are different by about a $100,000” she explained, adding that Griffin thought that trying to equalize the wages across the county was not only a reasonable request, but a “doable one.”

Miller also said that she had had a conversation with one of the governor’s aids, Southern Tier Regional Representative Kevin McCabe, who said he would be doing some lobbying along with Assemblyman Pete Lopez to help solve the issue. “This could save us a lot of money when we have to do major public-works projects,” said Miller, “both in Delaware County and locally.”

Prevailing wages cause village problems
Recently in this area, funding from the DEP’s Smart Growth Project was awarded to the Village of Margaretville for the installation of new sidewalks and other village beautification items. The grant, however, carried the stipulation that prevailing wages were to be paid. By the time the projects had been rounded up and put out to bid, the wages had risen to the point where the whole project had to be postponed due to the newly created funding shortage (the project is still currently in the planning stage).

Assessments also looked at
Supervisor Miller told the board that she is also working on an assessment project to compare what the Town of Middletown is paying on its assessed value to what other townships are paying.

According to Miller, Middletown is paying 15.1 percent of the entire Delaware County budget, while another town 60 square miles larger with a similar numbers of parcels (whose name she didn’t mention) is paying only about 4.4 percent. “I find that interesting,” she said

Tax formulas and revaluations
Miller contended that the formula for how taxes are apportioned in Delaware County is at this point still a mystery. “I believe certainly that we should at least understand why we’re paying so much,” she said.

Another part of her argument is that many towns have not done a tax revaluation yet, and therefore don’t know the inventory that they have, and are not assessed anywhere near a hundred percent. “It’s my belief that there is more value out there, and that this might give us some relief… I don’t mind Middletown paying its share, but I would like that to be a fair share,” she said adding, “So this is an ongoing project to seek out just how these things work… we should certainly know how these amounts are formulated…I think all of the towns should know that.”