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PROJECT LABOR ACCORD OK'D, BUT FACES VETO

Erie County legislators voted Thursday to put a union-friendly labor agreement in place for the pricey renovations that are about to begin on County Hall and the county's historic court buildings.

But County Executive Joel A. Giambra said he doesn't plan to abide by the Legislature's decision.

"I respect their right to make a statement, but I'm going to do what I feel is in the best interests of the taxpayers," Giambra said following the Legislature session.

Giambra said he doesn't yet know whether his veto power applies to the Legislature's vote on the project labor agreement.

"In the days to come, we will find that out," he said.

The PLA became a controversial topic last month when Giambra, a Republican, said he wanted a more open bidding process on the $45 million project.

Giambra maintains that an open process will save the county money because more firms will compete for the work. But unions -- and majority Democrats in the Legislature friendly with the unions -- said a PLA guarantees good working conditions and pay rates for workers, and promotes the hiring of minorities.

A PLA would not explicitly bar non-union firms from bidding on the project, but representatives of the firms said they would be less likely to bid because of the added requirements about pay rates, benefits and minority hiring.

A group of union leaders and members sat silently in Legislature chambers Thursday as the PLA vote was taken. The vote was 9.55-7.45, under the Legislature's court-imposed system of weighted voting.

"The right message was sent, but I don't think the message was sent strongly enough," said John Orlando, local head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, after the vote. "We now have . . . (legislators) showing allegiance to the county executive. But that should not override the needs of this community. Here's an opportunity to give real taxpayers real jobs."

Minority Leader John W. Greenan, R-West Seneca, said the six Republicans were not bowing to Giambra's wishes when they voted against the PLA. The other vote against the measure was Albert DeBenedetti, a Democrat from North Buffalo.

"We are not (voting) . . . for the sake of the county executive," said Greenan. "The unions have said to us, and I have no reason to doubt it, that the first phase of the project came in on time and under budget. This is a perfect opportunity for us to prove it."

Thursday's vote followed a closed-door meeting Wednesday in Giambra's office to try to get union leaders and representatives of non-union building trades to find a middle ground on the issue. That meeting was unsuccessful, said one source who attended.

A public hearing on the issue held late Wednesday in County Hall drew a crowd to debate the subject of whether the project should go forward with a PLA or the way Giambra wants -- with two sets of bids, one with PLA specifications and one without.

"Under the PLA, all contractors can bid," said Michael A. Fitzpatrick, chairman of the Legislature's economic-development committee and a strong union supporter. "We have seen what happened with the first job: On time. On budget. And the highest minority percentage this community has ever seen. How can anybody argue with win-win-win?"

The first project Fitzpatrick referred to was the construction of the new Erie County Family Courthouse on Franklin Street, which was recently completed. That building was built under the terms of a PLA negotiated in 1999 -- the same one that PLA-backing legislators said should still apply to the upcoming renovation project.

But Giambra's office pointed to a recent court decision in Ohio that prohibited public authorities from using union-only PLAs on publicly funded projects as a case that might have some bearing on the Erie County situation.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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