Cincinnati City Council mulls overturning 'responsible bidder' law

Policy could affect who gets $3.2B in sewer work

CINCINNATI -- City Council will begin the process Tuesday to consider repealing Cincinnati’s “responsible bidder” law, which is at the center of a dispute with Hamilton County.

The law, approved by the previous City Council, imposes restrictions on companies submitting bids to do work for the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD).

Hamilton County owns MSD, but Cincinnati operates the system under a contract.

County officials have said city policies shouldn’t affect MSD. As a county-owned entity, only state laws should apply, they added.

County sewer projects have been stopped since September, until the impasse is resolved.

At stake are billions of dollars in contracts during the next two decades.

Under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, MSD will issue contracts for about $3.2 billion in work to improve and upgrade the aging sewer system.

MSD ultimately must treat or prevent 85 percent of the sewage overflows into local rivers and streams.

The work will be done in the next 15-20 years.

But the last City Council passed a law in June 2012 – and modified it again last May – that critics allege give preference to labor unions at the expense of smaller businesses.

The law’s provisions include:

  • Requiring companies to employ apprentices at a ratio of at least 20 percent;
  • Requiring companies to pay 10 cents per hour for each worker into a fund for a pre-apprenticeship program; and
  • Requiring companies to have graduated at least one apprentice per year for the past five years.

Councilman Chris Seelbach, a Democrat who sponsored the law, has noted it exempts contracts valued at less than $400,000.

Seelbach didn’t reply Monday to a request for comment

The law is strongly supported by the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local No. 265 , and its vice president, Robert Richardson Sr.

Leading the opposition on City Council are Republican Charlie Winburn and independent Christopher Smitherman.

The pair hopes they can lobby new members who took office last week – Charterite Kevin Flynn, Democrat David Mann and Republican Amy Murray – into supporting the law’s repeal.

Winburn questions the union’s assertions the apprenticeship program has helped minority workers. He hasn’t been able to get any data "on one job" being created by the law.

“It will do absolutely nothing to help African-American owned businesses or female owned businesses,” Winburn said.

Smitherman’s assessment was harsher: “It's a policy that excludes, not includes.”

City Council’s economic growth and infrastructure committee, which is headed by Smitherman, will discuss a possible repeal at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The full council potentially could make a final decision Wednesday afternoon.

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