EPA rule hikes wages on area water projects

Several Western Slope communities are going to have to spend millions of dollars more for various water and wastewater expansion projects because of a recent ruling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that has some area officials fuming.

Fruita Mayor Ken Henry is angry his city’s $30.9 million wastewater treatment project, which it has been planning for years and was about to start, will cost another $1.3 million.

After Congress and President Barack Obama passed and signed an appropriations bill in October for federal stimulus money aimed at helping local communities put people back to work, the EPA determined projects would have to comply with the federal Davis-Bacon Act of 1931.

That requires governments using federal money to pay prevailing wages for construction workers, which are generally higher than regular wages.

To make matters worse for the communities, the EPA ruled the federal stimulus money being used not only applied to future projects, but also ones that were under way before the law was signed.

As a result, communities such as Fruita and Glenwood Springs will have to come up with additional money to pay the higher wages.

“We’ve been having to do a lot of scrambling,” Henry said. “This is the first time in 21 years that this act has applied. This impacts communities directly, and as far as we’re concerned, this is nothing more than a $1.3 million tax on Fruita.”

The EPA ruling forced the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority last month to delay issuing millions of dollars worth of bonds to pay for 23 projects in the state, including 10 on the Western Slope, Executive Director Mike Brod said.

Brod said the authority is trying to work with each local community to figure out a solution for their specific projects.

“A lot of them are saying they didn’t sign up for this,” Brod said. “We had gone through the process of getting them approved and working on the financing itself to get the loan agreement closed, and that’s where things got hung up. It took about a month for us to receive final guidance from the EPA ... and this is the way it came out.”

The Colorado Municipal League, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, have spent much of the past month trying to get the EPA either to reverse its decision or at least not have it apply to projects that had already gone out to bid. So far, their efforts have failed.

In Fruita’s case, its bid already was approved, and contracts to get the work done were signed.

“The irony is that you’ve got infrastructure projects that are being encouraged by the federal government as job stimulus, and then another arm of the federal government puts the brakes on it,” said Kevin Bommer, the municipal league’s legislative and policy advocate. “The irony is pretty thick on that.”


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