The Riverhead Town Board at its meeting on Feb.21. Photo: Alek Lewis

A proposal to amend Riverhead’s procurement policy to decrease the construction contracts that would require a union apprenticeship program was passed last night with significant revisions after blowback from trade unions.

The policy requires that contractors and their subcontractors receiving construction contracts in excess of $250,000 or 100,000 square feet, whichever is less, to participate in a New York State Department of Labor apprenticeship program. That provision was not changed, though town officials originally aimed to increase the threshold to $750,000 and/or 250,000 square feet, and to exclude subcontractors from the apprenticeship requirement if their work costs less than $100,000.

“After talking to the union we realized that really was going to hurt the apprenticeship program and we didn’t want to do that. So we went back to the original numbers,” Supervisor Tim Hubbard said in an interview Tuesday.  

Hubbard said during Wednesday’s meeting that the town would meet with trade union representatives in the future to discuss the possibility of increasing the threshold.

However, the new procurement policy does include several exceptions that would exempt other contracts from the apprenticeship requirements. This includes projects that receive any type of funding assistance which would “preclude the application of” the policy — including grants or private donations — and jobs that would qualify as “miscellaneous” or “general” under apprenticeship agreements, including some Riverhead Water District projects.

During a public hearing earlier this month, town officials pointed to rising costs as the impetus for the change. 

“The reason and the purpose essentially is, as the Town Board could appreciate and has appreciated, since COVID the cost of goods, materials, services has skyrocketed,” Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti said during the Feb. 6 public hearing on the proposal. “Our original language didn’t account for that.”

Riverhead Water District Superintendent Frank Mancini said the policy impedes hiring smaller local companies, particularly for well drilling and horizontal boring projects for the Riverhead Water District. It “undermines” the town’s bidding process, he said, and costs the town more money.

In letters to the Town Board after the Feb. 6 hearing, union groups, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, and the Mason Tenders District Council of Greater New York wrote in opposition to changing the policy. Hubbard said he and other town officials also met personally with union officials to discuss their concerns.

Anthony Villa, the business manager of the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, wrote that the board should not amend the town’s procurement policy at all.

“One of the stated purposes of the procurement policy is to ensure “prudent and economical use of public money,” which these changes fail to do,” Villa wrote. “The language as it currently stands maintains that for most projects in the town, contractors are held to the same standards of labor practice, which becomes more salient as projects expand in physical size.”

“As union workers, we know that when you allow nefarious contractors to cut corners, they will,” Villa continued. “By allowing larger projects to potentially opt out of the NYS Approved Apprenticeship program, young workers in apprenticeship programs suffer and become vulnerable to unfair exploitation. NYS Approved Apprenticeship programs encourage young people to join the Trades while offering safe training and fair processes. All of that will be lost by allowing projects to opt out of those programs.”

Edward Enders, a Baiting Hollow resident and 50-year member of a carpenters union, wrote that the board should strengthen the apprenticeship policy, not weaken it.

“I cannot see how these [policy] changes would help the workingmen and women of Riverhead or the taxpayer,” Enders wrote. “Stronger labor laws are associated with building and preserving the middle class.”

Villa’s letter came with a picture of a recent town bid notice document for the construction of a water district ground storage tank. The notice document, which was authorized by the Town Board on Feb. 6 and verified by RiverheadLOCAL, said the apprenticeship requirement was for contracts over $750,000, despite the town having not yet increased the threshold.

Hubbard said in an interview after last night’s meeting that the mistake would be corrected. The bid notice was “put in prematurely” because it was thought that the Town Board would amend the procurement policy last night to increase the threshold to $750,000. 

Josh Slaughter, the Long Island political coordinator of the Mason Tenders District Council of Greater New York, attended last night’s meeting to question board members about the amended procurement policy in public. He said in an interview that posting information in a bid notice in anticipation of a potential change to the procurement policy is illegal.

“It kind of shows that they clearly felt this was just going to pass regardless of what the public comment was,” Slaughter said. “Now that they’ve actually had opposition and folks being aware of what’s going on, they’ve taken a step back.”

If the procurement policy was passed as originally intended, it would have excluded most of the town’s largest contracts from the apprenticeship requirement. Only one of the six contracts over $250,000 approved by Riverhead Town as a part of last year’s annual construction bids was over $750,000.

Riverhead Town has a number of multi-million dollar projects planned that may be impacted by the policy change. Several town-sponsored downtown revitalization projects — including those related to the town square, a multi-story parking garage and restoration to the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall — have received state and county grant funding, which under a new policy provision could be exempted if those grants prohibit an apprenticeship requirement.

Prudenti said she did not know of any grant requirements that would trigger the new provision, but put it in to “protect the town” in the case there is one. 

The revised policy also exempts contracts utilizing donations received by the town from the apprenticeship requirement, if an agreement with a private donor prohibits it. Although the Town Board has approved no such donations recently over $250,000, the provision could have an impact down the line.

“[I]f we have a large benefactor that wants to donate $500,000 or a million dollars to the town, and they put in a prohibition against the apprenticeship in the language, I think the town board would still want to take the money and utilize the money for the benefit of its residents. That’s all,” Prudenti said last night. 

Town officials passed the the procurement policy’s apprenticeship provision in August 2018. It was a long-sought victory for area labor unions, whose representatives said the construction trades provide workers with livable wages and good benefits. 

Slaughter was at odds with Riverhead Town officials once before regarding compliance with the town’s procurement policy apprenticeship requirement. In 2021, the town awarded a demolition contract to a company that was not a participant in a qualified apprenticeship program.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com