City Council implements Rauner’s ‘empowerment zones’

Stephanie Markham, News Editor

The Charleston City Council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday incorporating some of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposals to create “empowerment zones,” which means the city does not have to follow the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act when bidding for things like construction projects.

The act states that workers paid with public funds must receive a wage of no less than the general prevailing hourly rate in the area.

Mayor Larry Rennels said private individuals can seek to have the same labor done as the city without having to pay prevailing wage.

“That means we’re making taxpayers pay more for a job than a private individual would have to pay for the same job,” he said.

The resolution, titled Supporting Local Government Empowerment, states that the community should decide whether or not employees should be forced to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment.

Rennels said the City Council should not be making those decisions.

“In most cases in the state of Illinois, if there is a union, the people either have to be members of the union, or if they don’t want to be members of the union, they still have to pay the union dues,” he said.

According to an article in The State Journal Register, Illinois Democratic attorney general Lisa Madigan issued formal opinions stating Rauner’s proposed “right-to-work zones” and letting local governments opt out of prevailing wage agreements are both illegal.

Madigan said federal labor law only allows “right-to-work” laws to be enacted on a statewide basis, not individual counties, according to the article.

Each council member present at Tuesday’s meeting voted in favor of the resolution, including Brandon Combs, Jeff Lahr and Tim Newell. Council member Matthew Hutti was absent from the meeting.

Rennels said he has concerns that the resolution the council passed is not what people have perceived it to be.

He said the resolution does not mirror Rauner’s “turnaround agenda;” instead, it contains only specific items the council members were familiar with and agreed with.

The Capitol Fax website lists Charleston as one of five towns that have passed “turnaround agenda” resolutions, which also includes East Dundee, Clinton, Cambridge and Makanda.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, Rauner’s “turnaround agenda” proposes that local voters should decide a multitude of things, including what issues can be collectively bargained, the pension and health benefits for the local government, and whether employees should be forced to join unions or pay dues.

“That document he published a couple months ago has 50 or 60 items on it, and that’s why we didn’t accept all of those,” Rennels said. “We simply put things in our resolution that we felt were important to the efficient running of the city and to the taxpayers.”

The “turnaround agenda” also states that Illinois should not impose costly mandates on local governments, which Rennels said was an important issue to Charleston.

Rennels said more than 280 unfunded state mandates have been imposed on communities across Illinois in recent years, and because the city must comply without state assistance, the city is often left with no choice but to raise real estate taxes, though the amount those can be raised is also limited.

“We’re asking the state to please give us a little more control over our own destiny,” he said.

The resolution was one of 20 items on the City Council’s agenda Tuesday, and it was not placed on file for public inspection.

Rennels said the council sometimes places items on layover for two weeks before passing it, which also gives the public time to consider the item and return with comments. However, he said most of the time the council passes items the first time they appear on the agenda.

“If it’s something that is a situation where, maybe we’re going to change a stop sign or something on a street that we think people need to have the opportunity to know what’s coming beforehand, we will put it on file until the next meeting,” Rennels said.

Rennels said he does not know if the resolution will make finding work more difficult for those who wish to join unions.

Joann Daugherty, a library specialist at Booth Library, is a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union for public service workers.

Daugherty said she does not see the logic in parts of the resolution because the city already has a process of choosing the lowest bidder for labor.

“It’s trying to target one group as causing all the problems, when I don’t think that’s where the problem is,” she said. “They need to change what they are doing, because it’s not right to target one group as the cause of everything. I don’t want to see families lose income.”


Stephanie Markham can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]