Opponents of Wicks Law See Best Chance for Real Changes

Tue February 25, 2003 - National Edition

ALBANY (AP) Critics of New York’s Wicks Law say the statute is aptly named, for they contend that untold billions of taxpayer dollars have been burned up by its provisions.

The long-standing statute dictates how the state and localities must seek multiple bids on most construction projects. Gov. George Pataki’s surprisingly emphatic endorsement of eliminating the Wicks Law has given their efforts special momentum in 2003, the critics claimed.

Previously, Pataki had advocated for more modest reforms of the law. But his 2003-04 proposed budget was the first time he called for its outright repeal.

While lobbyists for most government entities praised Pataki, powerful union forces on the other side of the issue started mobilizing to keep the Wicks Law in place.

It sets up what promises to be one of the more contentious debates about potential savings for taxpayers at a time when the state is wrestling with a budget shortfall of $11.5 billion.

Pataki said in his budget proposal that rescinding the Wicks law could save approximately 10 percent on the cost of government construction projects. Edward Farrell, head of the state Conference of Mayors, said localities could save $250 million to $300 million a year — with similar savings available to the state.

“We pose the question,” Farrell said at a recent state legislative hearing on the 2003-04 budget, “if the Wicks Law is such a good thing to have, why would you have to mandate it?”

The law requires every government entity seeking to spend more than $50,000 on a building project to award separate contracts for the plumbing, heating/ventilation/air conditioning and electrical phases of the work. Then a fourth contract must be awarded to a general contractor for all the other phases of the work.

Farrell said the $50,000 threshold is “ridiculous” given modern construction costs.

“You can’t put an addition onto your house for $50,000,” he told state legislators.

The Wicks Law actually stands for an evolving statute requiring multiple bids for public construction projects. The first statute was put on the books in 1912 and air conditioning, then a new technology, was added to the ventilation-heating category in 1936. The law bears the name of Arthur Wicks, a one-time state senator from Kingston.

Critics of the law generally argue that most other states and the private sector use a “single-contractor” form of bidding on contracts. One contractor, chosen by low bid, has authority over all phases of a project. The general contractor hires subcontractors to handle the plumbing, heating and electrical phases of the job, if they’re unable to do the work themselves.

The state School Boards Association is leading the effort to repeal the Wicks Law and has designated March 3 as the start of “Wicks Reform Week.” Other powerful players in Albany, such as the Business Council corporate lobbying group, also are seeking an end to the law. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also would like the law rescinded.

But construction unions are arrayed on the other side. State AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes said the “claims” that repeal of the law would save significant amounts of money are “all theoretical.”

The AFL-CIO-affiliated Construction Trades Council, representing some 200,000 workers in the construction industry, said there is “no compelling evidence” that repealing the Wicks Law will save taxpayers any money.

The council blames high construction costs for some public projects on bad designs, bureaucratic foot-dragging and the selection of contractors, based on artificially low bids, who can’t deliver on time or quality work.

Confusing the issue further is that the Wicks Law is not imposed uniformly throughout the state. The New York City, Buffalo and Niagara Falls school districts have gotten special exemptions from adhering to the law. The State University of New York Construction Fund and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are among the state entities exempt from the statute.

So is the New York City School Construction Authority — an entity plagued by cost overruns and a poor record of keeping its projects on track.

The 2003-04 budget is now in the Legislature’s court. Fiscal aides and the consultants they hire are formulating the revenue estimates for the coming fiscal year.