Prevailing Wage Dispute Propels Cincinnati City Council to Look at Irresponsible Contracting

In an interesting break from bureaucratic business as usual, the City Council of Cincinnati has used an incident in which subcontractors were not paying the prevailing wage to spark a conversation about how the city can better monitor city-funded projects.

It’s a classic case: a prime contractor on a large project hired a subcontractor who then contracted out more work and along the way someone didn’t get paid fairly. The prime contractor then claimed it had no idea and is not responsible.

The “U Square at the Loop” mixed-use development in the Clifton Heights neighborhood near the University of Cincinnati is a $78 million, public-private project being built by Arn Bortz. Bortz is developing U Square along with Castellini Management and the Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corppration. U Square, LLC subcontracted Forge Lumber who then subcontracted Midwest Framing.

After an investigation by council members Wendell Young, Laure Quinlivan and Cecil Thomas — they walked around the worksite themselves with a video camera — it was discovered that Midwest Framing was not properly paying its workers. Moreover, Midwest Framing is not registered to do business on such projects. Arn Bortz, naturally, repeated a typical buck-passing contractor talking point:

“We don’t police (subcontractors),” Bortz said. “We expect the people we pay to funnel that rate to the guys doing the real work.”

Here is where things get interesting. Instead of dealing with the issue the way most city council members would — by having a nephew/niece/intern send out a poorly worded press release — the City Council called a special meeting of the council’s Strategic Growth, Rules and Government Operations and Public Safety committees to thoroughly discuss how to prevent this from happening in the future. This action may be attributable to Laure Quinlivan whose past career as an investigative reporter for Cincinnati’s Channel 9 I-Team undoubtedly led to the method of inspection.

The truth a reporter discovers can often be measured by the ridiculousness of the response to its unveiling. In this case, it seems that Quinlivan’s mission of making the city “Cleaner, Greener & Smarter” is threatening contractors who wish to continue doing business as usual. Bortz responded to

“The way Quinlivan has handled this issue threatens to poison the environment for public-private partnerships going forward.

Quinlivan’s response:

“It appears we need to tighten our procedures to make sure we know who’s working on our projects,” Quinlivan said. “We need to fix whatever’s broken with our system.”

Pardon us, Mr. Bortz, but the environment seems plenty poisoned to begin with.

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