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Amid Contentious Debate, Austin Council Overwhelmingly Votes to Tie Increased Building Standards to Expedited Permits

Over the objections of many builders and others in the business community – and to the delight of the Workers Defense Project – the Austin City Council this past week overwhelmingly passed a resolution to move forward with certain standards for construction projects when an expedited building permit is issued. On a 9 to 1 vote, the council instructed city staff to come up with recommendations for how to specifically implement the proposal.

Among the questions to be ironed out:

  • How will self-sustaining fees for the program be structured?
  • What's a fair process for choosing third-party monitors for jobsites?
  • What exceptions will be made for projects based on their size and scope?

“I think it's very important for us to honor our workers and do that in a way that we can look at worker safety,” said City Council Member Ann Kitchen.

The vote came after various business groups argued strenuously that even though the city’s permitting process is in serious need of reform, tying that issue to worker protections would add another layer of red tape and restrict economic growth.

On the other side of the debate, the Workers Defense Project said “Through this effort to reduce the city’s permit backlog, developers, builders, and contractors would pay the city a fee to reduce their wait times from months to days.” Developers and contractors would be required to uphold standards on commercial construction in line with the Better Builder Program promoted by Workers Defense. Those standards include a “living wage, workers’ compensation, OSHA-10 safety training, and independent on-site monitoring to ensure that worker protections are being upheld,” the group said in a news release.

“We are proud that the men and women that build our city will now benefit from our economic growth and be protected from the dangers of the construction industry,” said Jose Garza, Executive Director of Workers Defense.

“If [businesses] are getting access to this good from the city then they should be extending protections to these workers,” said Bo Delp, the Program Director of Better Builder.

Business groups, however, including the Central Texas Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors said they were “deeply concerned about the current direction of suggested reforms to the City’s building permitting process.”

“Our membership of over 150 companies has consistently employed thousands of local, skilled workers over 40 years of existence,” wrote David Smith, ABC's Board Chairman for the Austin area. “ABC and its contractor members maintain an exceptional commitment to the best in class safety measures, and actively support the application of public policy that promotes responsible behavior by and great outcomes for workers, private industry, public entities, and the larger community.”

President and CEO of the Austin Chapter of the Associated General Contractors Phil Thoden called the proposals “misguided.” In the days before the vote, Thoden sent an email to contractors, saying “It simply forces permit applicants to choose between the current, slow process or pay to hire a local workforce monitor and pass those costs along to the building's end users.”

“This proposal does not encourage the hiring of workers trained at the Austin Independent School District, the Austin Community College, Goodwill and other local entities,” Thoden wrote. “Rather, it focuses on DOL-certified apprentice program trainees for hiring goals.”

Rebecca Melançon, Executive Director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance testified before the city council that her group of more than 800 local employers supports construction workers’ rights but objects to coupling an expedited permit process with these additional requirements.

“Our permitting department has been dysfunctional for a long time,” she said, adding that it’s going to take significant time to fix it. Melançon argued worker protections included in the proposal are aimed at addressing a very different issue. Fully acknowledging that many construction workers are abused by “unscrupulous operators,” she said “we already have laws to prevent this. If enforcement of those laws is an issue, then let's fix that problem.”

Melançon also lashed out at the Workers Defense Project, saying the group has created an “environment of intimidation by going after some of our members and our board members, which I seriously object to.” She pointed to a Facebook post by Bo Delp with the group in which he mocked the food store Wheatsville Co-Op:

“Just days before Labor Day, the Austin Independent Business Alliance, with Wheatsville Food Co-op on their Board, has come out in opposition to increased worker protections on the city's new construction fast track permitting system,” Delp wrote on Facebook, then said: “But don't worry guys – they’re selling a Labor Day Snack Pack.”

Melançon was aghast at that.

“I cannot think of another local business that is as community-minded, as public-oriented and as supportive of Workers Defense Project as Wheatsville,” Melançon said. She said Wheatsville recently contributed $10,000 to Workers Defense and “now they're being attacked” by the group.

Austin Chamber of Commerce President Michael Rollins wrote in a letter to the council that the business community supports reform of the permitting process, but said the changes should not “mandate unrelated certifications like SMART Housing or Workers Defense Project Better Builder Program.”

“The Chamber feels that additional requirements on expedited permitting will create a disincentive and customers will not avail themselves of the program,” Rollins wrote. “If more projects can move forward at a faster pace, the City can receive accelerated benefits in the form of property taxes, affordable housing, and related economic activity. Conversely, proposals to add further costs and delays to the expedited permitting program will make it harder for Austin residents to live and grow their businesses here,” Rollins said.

But Councilman Greg Casar, a former Workers Defense advocate who voted with the majority, said he felt “proud and honored” to be part of what is happening.

“In Austin, too often those with little political power get the short end of the stick in our booming economy,” Casar said. “A booming economy is only worth it if the benefits of the boom are being widely shared.”

Following the council’s vote, the City Manager and staff have two months to come up with recommendations about specifically how to implement the changes.