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Local unions challenge Bloomington subsidy for non-union contractor

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By a 5-3 vote, the Bloomington City Council approved a $4.5 million property tax reimbursement for downtown luxury apartments.  Local trade union members from Laborers 362, IBEW Local 197 and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 99 filled the meeting, encouraging the Council to mandate prevailing wages and apprenticeship participation.

Council members Mollie Ward, Tom Crumpler and Cody Hendricks voted with labor.

In her comments, Ward said, “we can no longer in good faith expend taxpayer resources while ignoring the needs of the poor and working people of our community. …We need prevailing wage and apprenticeship provisions, we need to standardize them, and we need to start now.” Previously, the Laborers Home Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that builds, maintains and operates affordable housing, had looked at developing the site. 

The City is using its Washington Street Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district to subsidize the project. Catalyst Construction is behind the $18.5 million project, which will build 48 one to two bedroom apartments above commercial space, along with 24 two-bedroom townhouses.  In previous statements the firm had described the apartments as “luxury.”  The site had included the Coachman Motel and the developer will demolish the City of Refuge Church and its classroom building.  Catalyst will pay the City one dollar for the Coachman site.

Catalyst describes itself as using both union and non-signatory contractors.  Over the past two years, various local unions have picketed city subsidized projects at Red Raccoon Games and the CII East Building in downtown Bloomington because Catalyst was using non-signatory contractors.

Addressing the Council, Livingston and McLean Counties Building & Construction Trades Council President and IBEW Local 197 Business Manager Mike Raikes said, “In the past, the developers have always reaped the benefits, let’s change this and give some protection for local construction workers.  Please vote no to this agreement and work on incentive packages that are pro-development and pro-worker.”

In his remarks, IBEW 197 member Ahmad Manns referred to another City subsidized project on East Washington Street to remodel the former Bloomington High School into apartments.  An Iowa developer won the incentives for that project.  Manns said: “Every time an incentive agreement comes up, we always see the developer able to reap the benefits but not the local workers.  Right next to the Coachman property we saw the development of the Washington Senior Apartments getting incentives without any requirements to use local labor.  The construction work was done by workers from Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, and even Texas.  Who lost out on the opportunity, local workers like me?  If that project and the current project in front of council tonight had labor protections more local workers would be able to work on those projects.  Those dollars earned by working would recirculate and our economy would be that much better.”

Alderman Tom Crumpler first put forward a proposition to boost the subsidy to ensure prevailing wages were paid.  This was defeated.  Voting in favor of the development were council members Jenna Kearns, Donna Boelen, Shelia Montney, John Danenberger and Nick Becker.  Council member Kent Lee was not present.  Kearns and Danenberger were labor endorsed in the April 2023 election. 

After the vote, both Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe and City Manager Tim Gleason pledged to work with organized labor to develop a program.  “We need to work with labor to find a common goal,” the Mayor pledged.