Monroe County has a licensing and registration board that is responsible for testing, registration and licensing of electrical contractors doing work in the county.
But those two professional trades don’t come close to covering the full range of work that is done in the construction industry.
At their Wednesday work session, Monroe County commissioners heard a pitch for enacting the kind of comprehensive licensing program for building trades that is used by Evansville and Vanderburgh County.
Giving the pitch was John Bates, who is the business manager for UA Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 136, which has locations in Evansville, as well as a training facility in Bloomington, on Bloomfield Road.
Bates stressed how that licensing program covers all aspects of construction work. He put it like this: “Anything that you pick up a tool to do work for in Vanderburgh County is under that licensing.”
Vanderburgh County’s licensing program covers HVAC, refrigeration, roofing, swimming pools, insulation, and drywall, among other things.
Bates ticked through the benefits that come with licensing, which include ensuring public safety and competence of contractors who perform the work. He urged Monroe County to consider adopting a similar licensing framework and emphasized the importance of effective enforcement to ensure its success.
The connection between unions and licensing is complex. But many interests that are served by licensing frameworks are also served by unions. Among them those interests are protections against unfair competition that is lower-priced, but potentially not competent.
Joining Bates at the meeting, but not addressing commissioners was Seth Carnes, who manages the Local 136 training facility. Also in attendance at the meeting was Cory Ray, a Bloomington labor advocate, who is helping them to navigate the local political landscape.
Bates told commissioners that Vanderburgh County’s licensing laws have enjoyed bipartisan support for over three decades.
On Wednesday, the three Monroe County commissioners seemed receptive to at least considering the idea of licensing.
Commissioner Penny Githens indicated she had already visited the Vanderburgh County licensing website. She asked a nuts-and-bolts question about who designs the tests.
Commissioner Julie Thomas wanted contact information for Ron Beane, an Evansville city councilmember who was instrumental in putting the licensing framework together back in the 1990s, according to Bates. Thomas also asked for a copy of the Vanderburgh County legislation.
But it is not clear if, or how soon, Monroe County commissioners might want to forge ahead with legislation of their own.
If county commissioners are working on enactment of a licensing framework into early next year, it is possible that it could become a campaign issue.
Two of the county commissioners—Democrats Githens and Thomas—could be facing primary opponents, if they decide to seek re-election in 2024. County councilor Peter Iversen, also a Democrat, has already announced he will be seeking election to the county commissioner seat currently held by Thomas.
The third Monroe County commissioner, Democrat Lee Jones, won re-election in 2022 to another four-year term.
Monroe County is looking at two major building projects in the next few years—a convention center expansion and the construction of a new jail.
Githens noted at Wednesday’s work session that the convention center expansion and the new jail facility are on the horizon. She connected the projects to the proposed licensing framework, saying she wanted to make sure that those projects are done right. Githens also gave a plug for unions in general saying, “Unions provide pay equity for women.”
A bigger campaign issue than licensing requirements is likely to be whether the jail construction and the convention center projects show any signs of forward progress in the next few months. Both have been fraught with complex politics, including some city-versus-county friction.
Bates and Carnes told The B Square they would also be approaching Bloomington city councilmembers about adopting a city ordinance establishing a licensing framework.
Bates told The B Square that building trades have not been very politically active in Bloomington in the last several years—and he’s trying to change that.
The UA Local 136, contributed significant donations to three candidates in the Democratic Party’s May 2 primary, all of whom won their races: Kate Rosenbarger ($1,000); Matt Flaherty ($2,000); and Isabel Piedmont-Smith ($1,000).