ITHACA, N.Y.—It’s been years in the making, but a local labor policy is finally on the books for the Tompkins County Industrial Development Authority (TCIDA).

The agency, which is responsible for the awarding of tax breaks and property tax abatements to projects that provide significant economic impact, has taken heat in recent years for the lack of a mandatory local labor component as part of agreements with businesses seeking their help. Local unions have long contended that builders and developers have brought in significant amounts of less expensive non-union labor, often from outside the region, leaving local union tradesmen out of jobs.

An initial policy, placed into effect in April 2016, served as a fact-finding mission from a practical standpoint. At the time, no one actually had a good idea what amount of local labor was being used in various development projects—did it vary between small/large projects, new builds vs. renovations, and so on. General contractors and construction managers were required to submit proof that they had solicited local firms for various subcontracts (a general contractor oversees the overall buildout, and often contracts out work to smaller firms such as mechanical utility installations, HVAC, electrical work, and plumbing) or provide explanations if they didn’t.

As part of the 2016 policy, they also had to submit for review monthly payroll reports with the employers, names and addresses of all construction workers that were on site, to verify what proportion of workers lived locally.

Asteri Ithaca, a mixed-use project in Ithaca that has received property tax abatements from the IDA.

With several years of data and a number of projects carried out in the meanwhile, the IDA was able to take that data and meet with local officials, business leaders and union trade representatives to flesh out the actual local labor policy.

As implemented, the revised local labor policy establishes a 75 percent local construction labor requirement, “local” defined here as workers residing in Tompkins County and the six counties that it borders. The policy requires notifying the county’s Building Trades Council and soliciting bids from local contractors. A formal waiver process is in place for warranty issues, specialized skills, significant cost differentials (>20 percent), and other extenuating circumstances.

The 75 percent figure comes from the data collected over the years, as well as acknowledgment that 100 percent just isn’t possible. For instance, specialized positions like construction crane operators tend to move with the jobs, and even with as much work as Tompkins County has seen in recent years, it’s not enough to sustain them in this one location.

“This local labor policy is the product of a lot of careful thinking, discussion, and compromise to reach agreement on how to encourage developers to build here while also using our homegrown talent to get these projects done. I want to thank the IDA members and IAED staff that helped us get to the finish line,” said TCIDA Chairperson Rich John in a press statement.

In a move opposed by some local trade unions, 100 percent of low-moderate income housing projects are exempt from the policy. The reasoning is when local labor is at a higher price compared to neighboring markets, market-rate residential projects have more flexibility in rents than below-market low-moderate income housing does. Secondly, New York State labor law requires affordable housing developers receiving state subsidies (which includes most Tompkins County LMI housing developers) to pay prevailing wage anyway, so there’s less benefit to them if they try to use outside labor, as it won’t save them as much money. A quick glance shows that of about 52 projects reviewed by the IDA in the past several years, less than 10 percent would fall under this exemption.

Though not perfect in their eyes, many of the local trade unions did express support for the new laws and are happy to have something formally in the law books after years of debate and discussion.

“This policy will help keep local wages in the hands of local workers, leading to an increase in homeownership and apprentice programs, and ultimately a stronger and more vibrant community. This is a win for everybody, especially tradespeople, and is a testament to the partnerships that make it happen every day,” said Brian Notebloom, a representative for Carpenters Local 277.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.