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Community Facilities District Financing Triggers Prevailing Wage Requirements For All Public Improvements of a Project

In Azusa Land Partners v. Department of Industrial Relations, the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal has upheld the California Director of Industrial Relations and the Superior Court of Los Angeles County in determining that use of Mello-Roos bonds to fund certain infrastructure required for a city’s approval of a mixed-use project requires payment of prevailing wages for the construction of all public facilities and infrastructure improvements required for the Project, and not just the public improvements funded by the bond proceeds.

In 2004 Monrovia Nursery entered into a Development Agreement with the City of Azusa (the City) for development of over 1,200 homes, 50,000 square feet of commercial construction, and public improvements and infrastructure, including a public school, park, sanitation district facilities, landscaping, and backbone infrastructure for the cities of Glendora and Azusa. The Nursery’s successor-in-interest, Azusa Land Partners (ALP) then entered into a Funding and Acquisition Agreement (Acquisition Agreement) with the City to provide partial funding of the required public facilities through establishment of a Community Facilities District to sell Mello-Roos tax bonds. The Acquisition Agreement initially referred to the eligible facilities simply as “Publicly Financed Facilities.” After the Mello-Roos bonds were issued, the City and ALP modified the Acquisition Agreement to identify specific, publicly financed facilities eligible for Mello-Roos funding.

The Acquisition Agreement required ALP to perform the public improvement work as a condition of approval of the project even if the actual cost exceeded the amount of bond funds. The bond proceeds funded a little less than half the actual cost of the public improvements, with the balance funded privately.

In 2007 the Director of Industrial Relations determined that the entire Project constituted a public work subject to prevailing wage requirements within the meaning of Labor Code Section 1720(a)(1). The Director also determined that the Project qualified for the partial prevailing wage exemption in Labor Code Section 1720(c)(2) under which only those public infrastructure improvements required as a condition of regulatory approval are subject to prevailing wage requirements, as long as the public funds contributed do not exceed the construction cost for the public improvements and the public entity does not retain a proprietary interest in the project. This determination was affirmed on administrative appeal in 2008.

ALP contended that only the public improvements actually funded by the Community Facilities District should be subject to prevailing wages and filed a petition for writ of mandate, which the trial court denied. The trial court found that Mello-Roos bond proceeds are public funds, the project is a “public work,” and that all public improvement work required as a condition of regulatory approval is subject to the prevailing wage law, regardless of the source of funding.

On appeal by ALP, the court of appeal stated that the entirety of Labor Code Section 1720 must be examined in analyzing prevailing wage issues, rather than focusing on select portions as ALP did. The statute should be liberally construed in keeping with the overall purpose of protecting employees on public works projects. The court addressed three specific arguments advanced by ALP.

First, the court rejected ALP’s contention that Section 1720(a)(2), defining public works as “[w]ork done for irrigation, utility, reclamation, and improvement districts…” limited application of prevailing wage requirements to work actually funded through the Community Facilities District. The court noted that the statute references “work done for” rather than “work paid for” by an improvement district, that all of the public improvement work was eligible for funding by the Community Facilities District and was required as a condition of regulatory approval, and that all work done for an improvement district is public work. Most important, the court found that the duty to pay prevailing wages on public works cannot be limited or eliminated by contract, such as specifying only certain public works that will be funded from Mello-Roos bond proceeds.

Next, the court determined that Mello-Roos bond funds “are public funds under the plain language of section 1720 and the Mello-Roos Act.” In so doing the court distinguished Mello-Roos bond financing from mere “conduit” financing where a public entity assigns its rights, including possession and control of the money, to a third party. The court also rejected ALP’s argument that Mello-Roos bond proceeds are akin to a government loan, the repayment of which is not contingent and is not at less than market rate interest.

Finally, the court held that use of the Mello-Roos bond proceeds to fund even a portion of the required public improvements triggered prevailing wage requirements for the entire project, subject to the Section 1720(c)(2) partial exemption. (The court also distinguished the analysis in Vineyard Creek Hotel & Conference Center, Redevelopment Agency, City of Santa Rosa (Oct. 16, 2000) Dept. Industrial Relations, PW 2000-016, which used a five-part test to determine whether “public” and “private” portions of a project were sufficiently integrated to impose prevailing wage requirements on the entire project, because the issue in Azusa was whether all public improvements should be subject to prevailing wages, and not the scope of the entire project. Following Azusa, it is unclear what effect the Vineyard Creek analysis may have in determining project scope outside the context of the Section 1720(c)(2) partial exemption.) The public improvements required for the project meet the test of the Section 1720(c)(2) partial exemption: The work was required as a condition of regulatory approval, the work cost more than the City’s contribution of public funds, and the City maintained no proprietary interest in the Project. The court found that applying ALP’s more narrow interpretation would result in developers being permitted to allocate lump sum public contributions to specific structures in order to minimize payment of prevailing wages and would thereby “render ineffectual” prevailing wage requirements for required public improvement work.

For more information about this case, prevailing wage issues or assistance in the structuring and establishment of Community Facilities Financing Districts, contact Robin Donoghue or Eric Casher at 800.464.3559.