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Wage lawsuit may be dismissed

by Christy Chalmers

A lawsuit alleging Douglas County avoided prevailing wage laws may be dismissed if both sides agree to a proposed settlement, but the state labor commissioner says the county still may face scrutiny over the underlying dispute.

The labor commissioner filed the suit in July 1999 claiming that the county, its redevelopment authority and the companies building a shopping center in the county’s first redevelopment area skirted the law by not requiring the private developers to pay prevailing wages.

Prevailing wages are average pay rates based on a yearly survey of pay rates for a given trade. Public entities are required to pay the rate.

The labor commissioner’s attorney said the North Valley Plaza developers should pay prevailing wage because the complex, at Highway 395 and Jacks Valley Road, would benefit from $3.5 million worth of publicly-funded improvements to roads, sewers and water lines that would serve the project.

County attorneys said prevailing wage was paid on projects funded with public money, but those projects and the shopping center were coincidental and because the county entities never made an agreement with the private developers, the prevailing wage law didn’t extend to the private work.

A Douglas County District Court judge ruled in September that the matter should be handled administratively. The state appealed to the Supreme Court, and a required settlement meeting produced a proposal that county leaders will consider Thursday.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Perkins, who represented the county, said Friday the proposed settlement could lead to a better explanation of the law, in addition to dismissal of the suit.

“We’ve agreed it’s better to figure out how the law works instead of suing each other,” he said. “We agreed that this law needs to have a little more definition. This seemed like the best way to handle the particular problem.”

Terms of the settlement call for Douglas County to ask the state Attorney General’s office for an opinion on the law, including the meaning of “financial incentives” and the requirement that the county redevelopment agency contract with developers.

State law says private developers that benefit from publicly-funded incentives worth more than $100,000 must pay prevailing wages, as the county does. The state had argued that the $3.5 million in publicly-funded improvements near the shopping complex constituted financial incentives for the development.

Labor Commissioner Terry Johnson said Friday he will accept the settlement as proposed, but still plans an administrative hearing on the wage dispute.

He said the hearing process may still involve the county and will probably include JS Devco, the developer of the complex, as well as the builders of the Home Depot and Target stores.

“Basically, the district court judge directed it to be settled in an administrative hearing, and that is what will probably happen,” Johnson said. “It would be a matter between the labor commissioner and the contractors, but I can’t say the county wouldn’t be involved.”

He said the case will probably be addressed within the next two months.

The county commission, which also acts as the county redevelopment authority, meets Thursday at 1 p.m. in the old courthouse, 1616 Eighth St., Minden.