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Kennekuk education center’s final phases raising controversy

Kennekuk education center’s final phases raising controversy
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DANVILLE — Plans to finish the last two phases of the Kennekuk Environmental Education Center at Kennekuk County Park west of Danville are creating some controversy even before details have been publicly proposed.

Vermilion County Board Chairman Mike Marron released a statement Monday saying he does not support efforts to “evade the law” by leasing conservation district property to a private group to avoid paying prevailing wages for construction of the final phases.

“Recently, it has come to my attention that the Vermilion County Conservation District has been in consultation with a group to finish the Education Center project at Kennekuk County Park,”the statement said. “The county applauds this effort … We need this project completed, but not at the expense of stated principles of state and local law.”

He also said that the proposal calls for a modified, smaller project than originally planned when the first plans calling for a three-phase, 32,000-square-foot facility were completed around 2005.

In 2014, the first phase of the education center was finished, with dedication of a $2.2 million, 7,000-square-foot building that includes offices, classrooms and restrooms in September of that year.

Phases 2 and 3 of the final 32,000-square-foot project, which include a timber-framed conference center, were to be completed as additional funds were raised by the Vermilion County Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit entity that is separate from the district but offers financial support for its properties and programs.

Jonathan Myers, president of the conservation district’s board, said the foundation — which has its own board and is spearheading the education center project — is requesting to be on the agenda for his group’s upcoming meeting, and he anticipates a proposal to lease land from his district will be on the April 18 agenda.

Myers said the proposal was on the conservation district’s agenda two meetings ago but was pulled after members of local labor unions spoke out against any attempt to avoid prevailing-wage laws.

The Prevailing Wage Act in Illinois requires contractors and subcontractors to pay workers employed on public construction projects no less than the general prevailing rate for similar work in the same county. The act applies to all public bodies, including the conservation district.

“Now, how that would apply to the foundation or other organizations, I wouldn’t want to make a guess at that legal opinion,” Myers said.

He said if the foundation proposes that the conservation district lease land near the education center for construction of the final phases of the project, he and other board members would have to know a few things before voting.

First, he said, they will need to determine if construction would be legal as proposed, and secondly, they would have to decide if it would be in the best interests of the district and taxpayers, as well as district employees and other stakeholders.

“Then, what is the foundation’s role in the lease?” Myers asked hypothetically. He said he is not yet privy to details of the foundation’s proposal.

“And I think that’s what we are going to need more clarification on,” Myers said. “We never would want to do anything that would not be legal, period.”

Gordon Thoennes, president of the conservation foundation’s board, could not be reached for comment.

Marron said he has reminded members of the conservation district’s board, who are appointed by the county board, that they must “unfailingly” comply with the law, “including the Prevailing Wage Act prominently displayed on the conservation district’s own website.” He said it is not enough to build a “truncated” version of the project “just to have it done.”

“Attempts to shortcut prevailing wage and avoid the opportunity for local labor groups, unions included, to bid on this job will taint the project and endanger its viability,” he said. “This project was begun with public dollars, and we cannot and should not try to circumvent the law because it is ‘cheaper.'”

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