Port landscaping contract stirs up debate

Corrections crews did work at expense of jobs, critics say

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The Port of Vancouver Commission was divided Tuesday after a heated debate over who it should hire to mow, weed and treat the port’s lawn.

The port would save roughly $15,000 per year on landscaping services by renewing its contract with Clark County Corrections in a deal that’s only available to public agencies and a handful of nonprofit organizations. The port, a semi-public agency, has used the county’s community service crews to clean and maintain its property since last May, adding $450 per week to the county coffers. That contract, worth $25,000 per year to the county, ended in December.

But union labor advocates argued that renewing the contract would kill local jobs and private landscaping businesses by paying below-market rates for the port’s lawn care. A 10-person crew on an eight-hour shift each week would each earn $5.62 per hour — well below Washington’s minimum wage of $8.55 per hour if the workers were paid.

“They’re working for free and private industry can’t compete,” said Brad Clark, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4, in his testimony to the port commission. “Give the work to honest, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.”

The controversy sparked a policy debate among the commissioners about how the port could best contribute to economic development in a community already facing high unemployment.

2-1 vote

In the end, port commissioners voted 2-1 to cancel the port’s contract with the county. Commissioner Brian Wolfe placed the swing vote, backing Commissioner Nancy Baker’s preference to send the contract out for bid to private landscaping companies.

“I just can’t get my arms around the fact that we’d terminate a small business,” Baker said. “Yes there’s a cost savings to the port, but it’s a cost to the community.”

Commission President Jerry Oliver voted in favor of the contract’s renewal, citing the port’s business interests. Like every other public entity this year, the port has faced declining revenues and budget cutbacks.

“We get four times more labor” for less cost, Oliver said.

It was a big debate for such a small contract, but the move could have a lasting effect on the county corrections department, said Tom Stillman, a lead crew chief with Clark County. Each county crew of six to 10 offenders is overseen by a county employee.

“Any time we lose contracts, we potentially lose employees,” Stillman said.

The county’s work program also helps keep incarceration costs down by providing an alternative to prison time for many low-risk offenders who work to pay off their fines, said Tatyana Bogush-Stakhov, a senior management analyst and contracts manager for Clark County District Court.