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County legislation again pits pipefitters against carpenters


April 06, 2005 - Legislation before the County Council again has pitted carpenters and pipefitters in a fight to keep their jobs, at least according to the carpenters.

Pipefitters welcomed the proposal at a public hearing last week.

Councilman and longtime pipefitter ally Mike O'Mara, D-north county, recently introduced legislation to amend the county mechanical, plumbing and building codes, citing public safety.

Critics, including County Council Chairman John Campisi, R-south county, contend the proposal would inappropriately legislate the work unions receive, increasing work for the pipefitters while taking jobs away from carpenters.

The code revisions seek to increase fire sprinkler requirements in restaurants and increase the fire-protection and irrigation-related jobs that must be performed by licensed plumbers, among many other changes.

"It could possibly give the county the authorization to go ahead and legislate that type of work and I think that's the kind of thing that I think we should not legislate," Campisi said. "We should keep that between the unions and let them fight that out like they always have ...

"In my opinion, I side with the carpenters," said Campisi, the benefactor of campaign cash from the carpenters during his election campaigns. "I think this type of work ought to be handled by a carpenter and it always has been handled by the carpenters as far as I'm concerned."

"You're siding with the carpenters, but you don't even know the history of what's going on here," O'Mara responded. "Let's keep on thinking about quality issues and not who's working.

"These codes are not about taking work away from one trade or another," he continued. "They're about public safety, so I think we need to consider that safety concern and not jurisdiction here."

O'Mara is assistant business manager of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562 of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada. He has a lifelong connection to the group. His father, former Democratic Councilman Jim O'Mara, was business manager of the same union, and the O'Mara name has been a fixture in Local 562 for nearly a century.

"With the licensing of plumbers, you will forever be providing a more important service to those you serve," Vince Berg of the Independent Plumbing Contractors Association told the council. "By requiring the strength of licensing requirements you currently have, you've protected the health and safety of this county ... As this revised code restates, it's the health and safety of the residents of St. Louis County maintained."

Carpenters, however, can't see the safety issue. They don't want the county regulating the jurisdiction of jobs.

"When I work for a contractor, and that contractor says he's going to have Larry, Curly and Moe do work that I think should be mine, he's the contractor. He's at risk. He's the boss, and whatever he decides to do, I'm going to live with," said Terry Nelson, executive secretary/treasurer of the Carpenters' District Council of Greater St. Louis and Vicinity. "That's what we're telling you here today. Let these contractors who are at risk decide how they're going to install their fire stopping ... I'm not going to be going out next week, trying to legislate jurisdiction and that's what going on here."

A similar debate surfaced in 2000 when the elder O'Mara introduced the current mechanical code requiring the licensing of contractors and employees who perform heating, ventilation and air-conditioning work.

At that time, Councilmen Kurt Odenwald, R-Shrewsbury, and Greg Quinn, R-west county, contended he failed to cite any specific public safety issues.

But in November 2000 the Democrat-controlled County Council approved the code revisions 4-3 with Republicans opposed.

It was one of the last votes former Democratic Councilman Jeff Wagener ever cast during his representation of south county as he had been defeated earlier that month in his re-election bid by Campisi.

After Campisi took office in 2001, the council approved legislation appealing the code, again voting on party lines.

But then-County Executive Buzz Westfall vetoed the measure, citing safety concerns, and Republicans lacked the five votes needed to override his veto.

At last week's public hearing, Garry Earls, director of the Department of Public Works, said County Executive Charlie Dooley supports the proposed code revisions.

"We want to have the most current materials and methods of construction included in our codes," he said. "We certainly want to lead the community in the metropolitan area with regard to enforcement and enactment of codes, and at this point, we're behind. The fire districts have already implemented many of these codes, and what we have today is a discontinuity between the codes that are enforced by the county and those that are enforced by some municipalities and some fire districts.

"Our insurance rates, ISO (Insurance Services Office) criteria rating, really requires us to enact updated codes as they become available," Earls added. "If we don't update the codes, then they reduce our overall insurance rating and therefore increase the potential interest rates that would be charged to citizens in St. Louis County. It is not St. Louis County's insurance rates. It's everybody rates ... who is part of the jurisdiction of the St. Louis County Department of Public Works."

The County Council took the matter under advisement.

The proposed code revisions are Bill Nos. 57, 58 and 59. Besides the provisions that have plumbers and carpenters fired up, the legislation also strengthens construction requirements to increase wind resistance, requires safety exits in basement bedrooms, increases mechanical ventilation requirements and boosts fire suppression requirements, among other changes.

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