Local Government

McHenry County Board approves prevailing wage, ending three years of protest votes

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board approved the state prevailing wage rates, ending a three-year streak of casting a symbolic protest vote against them.

Board members voted, 19-3, to adopt the wage schedule, which requires local governments to pay workers hired for public construction projects a specific wage set by the Illinois Department of Labor. 

Audience members, many of whom were union members and local residents who came to encourage a vote to approve, applauded when the final vote was tallied.

The County Board since 2014 had voted against prevailing wage, while being careful to instruct county staff to follow the law.

Board member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, said voting against prevailing wage sends a negative message to the community, and disputed the notion that the wages are responsible for the county’s sky-high property taxes.

“I think in the end, the overall benefits well outweigh the negatives that some may perceive regarding prevailing wage. It’s the right thing to do – we know it’s the law. It’s the right thing to do,” Kurtz said.

The County Board was one of the first local governments to begin casting an annual symbolic vote against prevailing wage. Opponents allege that it makes public works projects funded by taxpayers much more expensive than they need to be. Supporters counter that prevailing wage allows workers to make living wages in an expensive county, and prevents governments from shipping in cheap, unskilled and exploitable labor.

State law requires local governments, such as the County Board, to adopt the wage schedule each year. But although voting to reject the schedule carries no penalty, a government that willingly pays workers less than prevailing wage is illegal – elected officials can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, and the body itself can be subject to fines, which would be paid by the taxpayers.

Board member Chuck Wheeler, R-McHenry, echoed the sentiments of current and past opponents, alleging that the prevailing wage law is an unjust one that puts more burden on taxpayers and is unfair to workers on private-sector contracts. He called prevailing wages “a leg of the political machine” because the unions that benefit in turn donate to politicians who keep the system going.

“These [prevailing wage] workers are paid more than their private-sector counterparts, who are some of the very people footing the bill for these artificially high wages,” Wheeler said.

A number of speakers during public comment urged the County Board to follow the law and adopt the schedule. Bob Paddock, a business representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 that represents several classes of county employees, urged board members not to “demonize” tradespeople who only want to earn a decent living.

Woodstock resident and media entrepreneur Wendy Piersall likewise asked the County Board to adopt the wage schedule.

“I can definitely say you get what you pay for when it comes to employee talent,” Piersall said.

County Board members in recent years have endured some political headaches as a result of decisions that have upset organized labor, and Local 150 in particular.

The board was sued by Local 150 over its 2015 approval of a symbolic resolution backing Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” on the grounds that members meeting with Rauner beforehand violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act. The board settled the lawsuit last year and rescinded the resolution.

That resolution also led Local 150 to submit a tip to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund that board members weren’t working the 1,000 hours a year required for their pensions. The tip prompted an investigation and high-profile scrutiny of former state lawmaker – now County Board chairman – Jack Franks. Board members voted to eliminate their participation in IMRF.

Illinois passed its prevailing wage law in 1941 as a mechanism to ensure labor disputes did not delay or cease public works projects altogether, and to ensure workers’ jobs were not threatened by itinerant labor. In subsequent years, it was meant to protect the wages and benefits of workers from being slashed by employers competitively bidding for government projects.

Board members Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, and Michael Rein, R-Woodstock, joined Wheeler in voting no. Member Michael Walkup was absent.

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