After almost a year of discussing and planning, the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners, last Tuesday, decided to move forward with expanding the current jail and build a new juvenile transition center.
The county board meeting began with multiple citizens expressing their concern with the various aspects of the project.
Andy Fink, a Whitehall resident, spoke on his concern for moving forward with the project with the current prevailing wage rules. Prevailing wage was set up at the Civil War and is defined as the hourly wage, usual benefits and overtime, paid to the majority of workers, laborers and mechanics within a particular area. The prevailing wage laws are set up to help prevent public construction projects from destabilizing a local construction industry and to advance other priorities such as workforce development.
Fink was concerned that with the county spending an estimated $35-$41 million on a new jail and juvenile transition center, it should try to save as much money as possible by changing the prevailing wage rules.
“It is irresponsible for you to approve a jail as long as you have prevailing wage rules,” Fink said.
Muskegon County’s policy on prevailing wages states that “prevailing wages shall be paid on all construction projects of $100,000 or more.”
Opponents of the rules state that prevailing wage increases the cost of publicly funded projects.
Ryan Bennett, a local construction worker, disagreed with Fink stating that the rules were set up to help protect workers. He told the board that the only place where information disagreeing with prevailing wage is found at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Bennett urged the commissioners to do their own research on prevailing wage to find the truth.
According to americanrightsatwork.org, prevailing wage laws require that non-union workers on publicly-funded projects get the same pay as union workers.
Ken Mahoney, board chairman, told the audience that this is just the beginning phase of designing the jail and that labor only makes up about 30 percent of the total project.
Bob Scolnik, District 4 commissioner, stated that this issue will be further down the line.
“Prevailing wage is yet to come,” Scolnik said.
While some citizens were concerned with prevailing wage, others, like Nell Schaefer and Matt Crehan, were more concerned with why the county needs a bigger jail, and also how the county will run the jail with fewer staff.
Matt Crehan expressed his concern with the larger number of inmates, but the decrease in staff. As a way to save money, the county has stated that they will cut 6-15 positions, but do not have specifics on what those positions will be.
Crehan said he spoke with an employee from the Michigan Department of Corrections on Muskegon County’s new plan and said he was told that in order for the jail to be run efficiently, the county should not cut guards.
“You need to go back to the drawing board,” Crehan said.
Schaefer, a member of the Letters are Better and Derail the Jail groups, was also concerned with the loss of 6-15 positions, stating that doing so will create a burden for those families.
She stated that a large percentage of inmates in the jail were unemployed when they were arrested, and by reducing 6-15 positions it will continue that pattern.
Schaefer suggested that instead of building a larger jail, the county should use that money for diversion programs to keep people out in the first place, and also keep people from becoming repeat offenders.
“I’m urging the county and commissioners not to approve the jail,” Schaefer said.
After listening to the citizens’ concerns and discussing the prevailing wage issue, the commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with hiring architect and construction management firms.
“I believe this is the best option,” Mahoney said. “Many hours of time have been put into this and it is time to move on.”