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Federal regulators say they're willing to give local officials more time to resolve the sewer impasse.
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CINCINNATI -- As federal regulators visited Cincinnati this week to check progress on stopping sewage overflows into area waterways, Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials are edging closer to a compromise to restart some of the work.
A decision on the compromise between the city and county is expected within the next week, according to those involved with the negotiations.
Several area sewer projects were stopped in September, after Cincinnati City Council changed a law about which contractors could do the work.
The city’s “responsible bidder” law is opposed by Hamilton County, which is the city’s partner in making sewer system improvements.
Hamilton County owns the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) and provides its budget, but Cincinnati operates the utility under a 50-year contract that expires in 2018.
At stake are billions of dollars in contracts during the next two decades.
Representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held a three-day meeting this week with MSD officials.
Attending part of the session were Hamilton County Commission President Chris Monzel and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.
Dick Hammersmith, Monzel’s aide, said the session was previously scheduled and wasn’t prompted by the impasse between the city and county. Although the contracting process wasn’t the meeting’s focus, it was discussed.
“There were comments made in the meeting that the city and county were close (to reaching a compromise),” Hammersmith said.
The EPA considers the contracting dispute a local issue and doesn’t foresee having to become involved, he added.
Monzel has met with various city officials to discuss a compromise including Vice Mayor David Mann, council’s swing vote on the issue; and Councilwoman Amy Murray, who heads the Major Transportation and Regional Cooperation Committee.
The latest version of the compromise being floated would end the mandate for most contractors to have an apprenticeship program. Instead, an "aspirational goal” that at least 35 percent of MSD contracts would be awarded to those with apprenticeship programs would be established.
Also, the proposal calls for spending up to $400,000 annually to audit contracts and see if the goal is being met.
“The city would take responsibility to make sure we’re hitting the right numbers,” Murray said.
City Council passed the responsible bidder law in June 2012, and modified it again last May. Opponents allege it gives preference to labor unions at the expense of smaller businesses.
Under the current law, construction contractors bidding on projects costing more than $400,000 must participate in an apprenticeship program to train new workers.
Typically, labor unions operate most apprenticeship programs.
The law is strongly supported by the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local No. 265, and its vice president, Robert Richardson Sr.
Richardson’s son, Rob Richardson Jr., heads Build 513 , a group pushing to keep the current law.
In a recent mass email to supporters, the younger Richardson urged people to lobby county commissioners to end the dispute with the city.
“The ordinance is a good law, holding all contractors accountable for apprenticeship training that helps build a skilled, safe workforce and it applies to the MSD project,” Richardson wrote.
“Some contractors want to do work on the cheap, and skip investing in their workforce and apprenticeship programs,” the email added. “And rather than obey Cincinnati’s law, the commission is holding up the entire project.”
Unions that support the law include the Cincinnati AFL-CIO, IBEW Local 212, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 372, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 75, Greater Cincinnati Building Trades and the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.
Although supporters have said the law will help minority workers find jobs, the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce opposes it.
The Chamber dislikes a provision that requires contractors to have graduated at least one apprentice per year for the past five years.
“All responsible bidder language from around the country has an apprenticeship requirement; however, the Cincinnati ordinance language is significantly different by including a five-year by trade graduation rate. We have not found this language in any other market,” wrote chamber official Zola Stewart in a May letter.
In January, City Council voted 5-4 along party lines to oppose repealing the responsible bidder law.
At the time, Mann said he wouldn’t repeal the law until a replacement version was agreed upon. Mann didn't respond Friday to a request for comment.
“Our feeling is this has gone on for eight months,” Murray said about the impasse. “I believe within the week, we’ll know whether we have a compromise on responsible bidder or not.”
If Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials don’t reach a compromise, county officials have threatened to file a lawsuit.
Under a consent decree with the EPA, MSD will issue contracts for about $3.2
billion in work to improve and upgrade the aging sewer system during the next 20 years.
MSD ultimately must treat or prevent 85 percent of the sewage overflows into local rivers and streams.
READ MORE: Stories by Kevin Osborne FOLLOW: @kevinwcpo