County Executive Joel A. Giambra said he is not convinced that Erie County should have a project labor agreement to complete work on the renovation of its court buildings.
Giambra said Monday that he will allow both union and non-union contractors to bid on the multimillion-dollar renovation work planned to start soon at Old County Hall, the County Hall Annex and a third smaller court building on West Eagle Street.
"It's all about competition," Giambra said. "Let the marketplace determine the result."
Giambra's directive, included in a letter sent to the County Legislature on Monday, is sure to stir up heated controversy in the county.
Already, the head of a council representing 18 unions and 10,000 union members is calling on the Legislature to ignore the county executive's plan.
"It's ridiculous. It's politics as usual," said Daniel Boody, president of the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council. "If (Giambra) is lucky enough to derail this project, there will be a lot of labor unrest."
Giambra said his goal is to reopen debate on the project labor agreement, which calls for work to be done by union firms. The agreement was signed for the county's massive court project in 1999, one year before Giambra took office.
The first phase of the project -- construction of a new Family Court building on Franklin Street -- is done. The second phase, renovation of the existing court buildings, is due to begin soon.
"This proposal will allow us to see who has the best price and who will do the best job," said Giambra, a Republican.
The action furthers Giambra's position on union labor, which became a hot issue in January when he delivered an ultimatum about the billion-dollar Buffalo Public Schools construction project. At that time, Giambra said that bidding on major projects funded by Erie County -- like the Buffalo school construction project -- should be open to both union and non-union contractors.
Some applauded Giambra's action Monday, calling it a step in the right direction for the county.
"We'd prefer absolutely no project labor agreement," said Scott Zylka, regional director for the Western New York region of Associated Builders and Contractors. "However, we're willing to accept bidding it both ways to show that the PLA in existence is noncompetitive and is costing the taxpayers dollars."
Zylka, whose association represents 75 companies locally, said Giambra's action "strengthens" the position the county executive took during the debate on the Buffalo Public Schools project.
According to Giambra, the county's law department and outside legal counsel have determined that the county can legally reopen the PLA governing a major construction project between phases of the project.
Phase I of the court project -- the construction of the new Erie County Family Courthouse on Franklin Street -- is finished and Phase II has not yet begun, he noted.
Giambra said the county's public works department will prepare two sets of bid specifications for the project, which will be jointly mailed to construction companies looking to bid on the work. One set of specifications would follow PLA guidelines and the other wouldn't.
Companies will be encouraged to bid on "one or both," according to Giambra. After the bids are received, the County Legislature can compare them and select the lowest responsible bidder, Giambra said. He said he wasn't sure whether his veto power will apply to the Legislature's decision.
"I'm hoping that the unions will accept this as a compromise on the issue of project labor agreements," Giambra said.
But union leaders said Giambra's action will, more likely, create a huge mess for the county.
"Let's look at it realistically: You can't have a project bid both ways," said Boody, the construction council president.
He said union leaders "heard the rumblings" about Giambra's decision and have begun talking to county legislators about blocking the process.
"My hope is that it doesn't even get to that level," Boody said. "Hopefully, the Legislature will be able to stop what he's trying to do."