(Andrew Doughman/Nevada News Bureau) – When the bottom fell out of the construction industry, some lucky ones kept working.
CC Myers, a California company, has benefited from a portion of a $393 million contract to extend Interstate 580 between Reno and Carson City. They are building the 120-foot-tall bridge spanning Galena Creek.
Work there has continued apace as vehicles zooming through the valley below have increasingly carried unemployed Nevadans.
So while Nevada continues to have the nation’s highest unemployment rate, Nevada taxpayers are paying a California company to build a bridge in Nevada.
Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, wants to change that. She has introduced a bill that Democrats have labeled “Nevada Jobs First,” a jobs bill Democrats wanted to roll out within the first 30 days of the legislative session to prove they were no-nonsense about putting Nevadans back to work.
The bill would make companies bidding on state construction contracts employ at least 50 percent Nevadans and use vehicles and materials from Nevada, ostensibly bolstering the numbers of Nevadans in the ranks at construction sites.
But while CC Myers may be a Californian company, that does not mean they are employing Californians.
The company contends that more than 80 percent of the workers building the Galena Creek bridge are Nevadan.
CC Myers is not the only company employing Nevadans in numbers well above the threshold Smith’s bill sets.
Sundt Construction of Arizona is in the finals months of constructing a $30 million health sciences building at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Tim Krump, the project’s manager, said 86 percent of the subcontracted firms working at the construction site are Nevadan and 100 percent of the vehicles used at the site are registered in-state.
The work site at UNR abounds with logos. A Sparks electric company has a trailer just beyond a fence erected by a Minden company. An Incline Glass machine sits idle next to a dumpster from a Sparks company. Even the portable toilets next to the Sundt offices are emblazoned with the logo of a Reno company.
Great numbers of out-of-state companies do not seem to be snatching Nevadan’s taxpayer dollars through state-funded public works projects.
The Nevada Department of Transportation, a major source of the state’s construction work, has awarded just a handful of contracts to out-of-state contractors within the past few years, said Scott Magruder, NDOT spokesman.
He said companies who bid low to secure a contract often have a low profit margin. They cannot afford to bring in many out-of-state workers.
“It is more cost-effective to use local laborers or professionals just because it can be very costly to mobilize equipment and personnel,” Magruder said.
Smith said that she has heard testimony from people who have driven by construction sites where all the vehicles bore license plates from other states.
But Gus Nunez at the Nevada State Public Works board also said that very few projects now go to out-of-state contractors.
He said more out-of-state workers may have come to Nevada during the boom days prior to 2007.
To create the housing bubble, developers had beckoned workers to come to Nevada to build, build, build.
But these days, more than 91,000 construction workers in Nevada are out of work.
At VanWoert Bigotti Architects, Brad VanWoert said he has had to reduce his workforce by 50 percent during the past two years.
His firm has done many public works projects in the past.
These days, the firm does see some competition from out of state. With the industry starving, anybody jumps at a fine-looking contract.
The low-bid environment, though, would force any out-of-state firm to hire Nevadans to save money, he said.
“This is not a big deal,” he said of Smith’s bill. “It’s a nice statement … it is not a jobs bill. For us to design for a job, there has to be a job.”
The problem is, there are not many jobs. Nunez said the state public works board is planing for less than $50 million in new construction projects during the next biennium. That’s down from $810 million during 2007 and $545 million this year.
The Nevada Department of Transportation had $594 million apportioned for construction during 2009, but that money was not all for new projects. The Interstate 580 expansion alone ate $100 million of that.
The federal stimulus is also winding down, and Congress seems to have no appetite for new spending.
“The real impact of the bill depends on public agencies to come up with projects to build,” Krump said.
The bill would affect the bidding process for projects going out to bid now. But that would also not immediately create construction jobs.
VanWoert said design firms would have to draw up the plans for projects before construction workers were employed.
Bill would provide funding for construction jobs
Another Smith bill would enable school districts to use money for construction that they normally keep in reserve to pay debt. She has said it would create jobs renovating schools and create a better learning environment for school children who all too often have to try to learn in old, decrepit classrooms.
But if the plan sounds familiar, that is because Gov. Brian Sandoval is also counting on the money in his budget. Sandoval would punch a hole in his own budget by signing Smith’s bill into law.
Smith’s bidding preference bill is stalled in the Senate. The bill has support from those who see a future benefit from the proposal if out-of-state workers ever swarm back to Nevada.
Krump also said that the bill would help solidify in statute what companies like his already do.
But for now, changing the rules for a bidding preference does not seem to be a way to create many jobs.
“There’s no work,” VanWoert said.