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Public employees: Infrastructure improvements badly needed, but contractors soak up funding

By SHERRY HALBROOK

When the American Federation of Teachers invited PEF leaders and members from local unions representing public employees throughout the country together in a Zoom meeting April 13 to talk about the federal infrastructure investment bill before Congress, the consensus was strong.

Infrastructure of many kinds, such as roads and bridges, water, energy, and broadband communications, needs maintenance, replacement or expansion.  The needs are obvious and well documented, according to studies, but far too much funding is usually wasted on for-profit contractors.

“Over the last two decades or more our public infrastructure has been under resourced and starved,” said Jennifer Porcari, assistant director of AFT’s public employees division.  “The federal gas tax designed to support our transportation infrastructure has not been increased in 28 years and remains at 18.4 cents per gallon.”

However, the issues, the panelists said, go beyond the basic need for funding.  The money to improve infrastructure should be spent on it, not diverted from its intended goals, and it should be invested in infrastructure planning, design, construction, inspection and maintenance by public employees, not the private sector.

PEF member Andrew Puleo warned against allowing foreign countries and companies to own the basic utilities and infrastructure on which the country depends. He cited the example of New York State Electric and Gas, which actually is owned by the Spanish company Imberdrola.  “We should buy back our infrastructure,” he said.

“This bill is vitally important.  We are billions and billions of dollars behind on infrastructure,” said Jerry Smith, an engineer for the Maryland Department of Transportation.  “This work has been needed for decades.”

Antoinette Ryan-Johnson, president of the City Union of Baltimore, said crumbling infrastructure is very dangerous.  Water infrastructure in the city has become so deteriorated, she said, that it cost the life of one her members.  “Our member, Trina, was killed on the job when the physical structure of a grate she was walking on collapsed, and a second member, who nearly died, was in the ICU for weeks because of a cave in.”

Matt Emigholz, a state mechanic in Illinois, said highways and other infrastructure in that state were built 70 years ago and never designed to accommodate the vastly increased traffic and wear they experience today.  Crumbling road surfaces and other failures end up costing state residents an extra $610-$650 every year in damage repair and depreciation to their cars and other vehicles, he said.

When it comes to infrastructure construction and maintenance, Smith said, “Over the years, almost everything has been shifted to private consultants.”

“We are giving away the store!  Our funding is going out the door,” said Puleo, a state Transportation Department assistant civil engineer, who coordinates highway work permits for projects in a five-county region of western New York.  “Construction contracts are ripe with bloat, they include provisions that guarantee corporate profit,” he said.

Far too much taxpayer funding for public projects gets wasted by hiring private contractors and consultants to do the work for profit, when the state’s engineers and architects have already figured out what is needed and how to do it, Puleo told the group.  He also said the state makes it possible for private companies to get very low interest loans to finance their work on public projects.

The engineers, mechanics and other frontline public employees from Baltimore, Chicago and Alaska agreed.  While specific needs and technical challenges vary by climate and region, the underlying problem of seeing public funding handed off to those who put profit over public good is consistent they said.

They also agreed that the private sector constantly siphons off the most talented public employees. They get trained via public education, take public-sector jobs to gain experience and then leave to work for contractors at higher pay.

“The government provides a way for them to leave with all of the experience and training,” Puleo said.  “Let’s end the practice of using tax dollars to pay consultants more than public employees.  The prevailing wage calculation should include private wages.  We continue to struggle hiring engineers.  The pay disparity is so great the number of engineers applying to work for DOT has dwindled for years.  On Long Island it has been so pronounced that professional engineer positions have been filled with technicians.”

The problem isn’t limited to engineers, Emigholz said. Mechanics working for the state of Illinois earn about $42/hour, compared to the $180/hour they can earn in the private sector.

Emigholz said more control is needed over how federal funds are spent, because too often funds that are meant to pay for important infrastructure improvements are actually spent for other things.

“It really gets down to finding a sustainable source for infrastructure,” said Chris Runge, AFT’s public employee director.  She added that corporations, which have “been making a fortune during the pandemic,” have been allowed to evade paying their fair share of taxes.

“We have plenty of people, such as Andy Puleo, who are ready to talk to legislators in Washington,” Runge said.

AFT’s lobbyists said it is important to start early on educating legislators and the public about these infrastructure and contracting issues, because the American Jobs Act will likely come to a vote this summer.

PEF President Wayne Spence said he was impressed by the broad range of important issues and arguments brought forward by the panelists.

“Andrew’s comments were very powerful and I would think that elected leaders would be interested in this,” said Spence. “How can you achieve equity in school if some students don’t have access to broadband? No Internet access means you cannot go remotely to school, college or work.  These things will disproportionately affect communities of color and the rural poor.”