HIBBING — After learning that one of the city’s storm sewer projects was put out for bid to private contractors, an employee from the Public Works department went toe-to-toe with Mayor Rick Cannata over who is costing taxpayers more money.

Joe McKenney, a union employee with Local 791, AFSCME, spoke during the citizen’s forum at Wednesday’s city council meeting, airing his concerns that the city is contracting out work at Greyhound Boulevard that Public Works employees could be doing. McKenney said when he questioned his superiors he was told that the city wants it done correctly and in a timely fashion.

Acknowledging that their crews have recently had “mishaps” while working on the storm sewer at Fairview Plaza, he insisted the problems were due to “non-stop rain.” He then referenced their union contract, noting a section about subcontracting work out as he posed the question, “As a taxpayer, my question is why are we even in this lot? This is a private lot. We’re dragging wetlands that [have] been there for 100 years.”

He added that Public Works gets paid to do this type of work and because the city was considering contracting it out for almost $13,000, he said if that happened he believed the union would have “no other choice” but to file a grievance.

When he was through, Cannata wasted no time rebutting, “You blame it on the weather, right? Well, where I come from, from the private construction field, you work when it rains out. You go do sewers, we put up walls, we do things, OK?” Cannata latched onto the notion about saving taxpayers money as he asked McKenney if their allotted ten-minute breaks are really ten minutes or they count commute time to and from the shop that he said adds up 45 minute breaks. As Cannata continued to list off other examples of project-related issues they’ve encountered, McKenney passed the buck to the city engineer and the project foreman, saying that as an employee he takes pride in his work but is “by no means responsible for this job” or the project’s related decisions or costs.

“Not one time did anybody stop us on this job to tell us that we need to stop directives or that it’s taking too long,” McKenney insisted.

Neither appeared ready to back down. Cannata then cornered McKenney for calling him on his cell phone during work hours — outside of his allowed ten minute break time. More back and forth ensued until McKenney circled back to his main point, asking, “Can you tell me that you’re not paying us already to do this work?”

Cannata fired back, “But are we taking other work away from you? There’s many things that have to be done before winter, isn’t there?”

“There’s always something to do,” McKenney said.

“I know, there’s always something to do,” Cannata repeated.

A pregnant pause lingered in the air.

Finally Councilor James Bayliss thanked McKenney, assuring him that he and fellow councilors would review the issue.

By the end of the meeting and with assurances from City Engineer Jesse Story that the Public Works crews have plenty of work to keep them busy, all but one councilor voted in favor of awarding a bid to install two catch basins and a storm sewer crossing on Greyhound Boulevard to Bouglais, Inc. in the amount of $12,900.

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