Perfect labor storm threatens road fixes

HOUGHTON — The first round of field work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began Wednesday in east Houghton near Michigan Technological University, while a statewide construction labor-management dispute threatens the chances of finishing road projects this fall.

City Manager Eric Waara said Wednesday that the FEMA teams are following up on detailed damage inspection reports prepared in the days after the June 17 flood.

“We’re going to be continuing to work on that over the next couple weeks here, because some of them are really easy. Some of them are a little bit more work,” he said.

Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Jepsen and Utilities Superintendent Ryan Avendt were in the field with FEMA Wednesday. Clerk Ann Vollrath will work with FEMA next week to enter payroll data recorded in the emergency response to the flood.

“We’ll keep following the program, and hopefully later in the fall, we’ll start to see some turnaround on this,” Waara said. “It starts here, it goes into a computer, it’s going to end up in Virginia someplace … it’s going to be a while yet.”

Work that had been planned for Michigan Department of Transportation projects on Montezuma Avenue and Dodge Street has yet to be completed due to a state-level labor dispute.

The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association (MITA) began a lockout of Operating Engineers Local 324 earlier this month over what MITA termed a refusal to negotiate after its five-year contract expired June 1.

MITA also alleged “coercive actions” by the union. The union described MITA’s action as an involuntary layoff, noting members had been working to complete road projects throughout the summer without a contract.

Negotiations had resumed Wednesday on resolving the dispute, Waara said, citing state Rep. Scott Dianda as his source. However, the dispute has already significantly closed the feasible construction window.

“It’s almost a perfect storm of problems for us right now,” Waara said. “Even if we do bid this stuff out, the contractors that are going to bid on it are probably going to be three to four weeks behind on the work they already had.”

The city isn’t able to buy blacktop right now, since blacktop plants aren’t open, Waara said.

If a resolution isn’t reached in time, the city might have to move on its own before winter comes, Waara said.

“We’ve got guys that are good with concrete,” he said. “We’re going to do what we have to do to make sure we’re able to get to winter some of these things. Right now, it’s very frustrating, because we had stuff cut and prepped and ready to pave, full streets, (and) we can’t find blacktop.”