This page provides a brief overview of traditional public works contracting for local governments in Washington State, including links to a wide range of public works topics. It is part of MRSC’s series on Purchasing and Contracting.
For more detailed information on public works bidding and contracting, download MRSC’s City Bidding Book or County Bidding Book. Although these publications are geared toward cities and counties, much of the information is also applicable to other local government agencies.
What is a Public Work?
RCW 39.04.010(4) defines "public work" as:
[A]ll work, construction, alteration, repair, or improvement other than ordinary maintenance, executed at the cost of the state or of any municipality, or which is by law a lien or charge on any property therein. … "Public work" does not include work, construction, alteration, repair, or improvement performed under contracts entered into under RCW 36.102.060(4) or under development agreements entered into under RCW 36.102.060(7) or leases entered into under RCW 36.102.060(8).
This applies to all municipalities as defined in RCW 39.04.010(3) – essentially all public agencies except the various types of diking, drainage, or irrigation districts, or any other district authorized for the reclamation or development of waste or undeveloped lands.
“Ordinary maintenance” is not defined by statute, but based on WAC 296-127-010 it can be defined as work that is performed by agency personnel to provide regular or preventive maintenance. It does not include repair or replacement projects. However, MRSC's position is that agencies should approach all maintenance projects conservatively and treat them as public works. For more details, see the Ask MRSC Archives.
Examples of public works projects include road construction, roof repair, HVAC upgrades, building remodeling, or parking meter installation.
Traditional Design-Bid-Build Contracting
These pages discuss only the “traditional” design-bid-build public works process, and not the alternative project delivery methods of Chapter 39.10 RCW. In the traditional project delivery method, which all public agencies in the state are allowed or required to use, an engineer/architect designs the project, an agency uses a competitive process to bid the project and make an award to a contractor, who then constructs the project using plans and specifications prepared by the engineer/architect.
The alternate contracting methods are restricted to a much smaller pool of local agencies.
Chapter 39.04 RCW requires competitive bidding for public works projects, although it does not establish bid limits or required competitive processes, and RCW 39.04.280 exempts municipalities from competitive bidding for emergency public works projects.
The exact public works bidding requirements vary from agency to agency. Many local governments have their own unique bid limits, competitive processes, and even exemptions in their statutes, and many are able to use a small works roster process for projects under $300,000.
Most public works projects require prevailing wages, retainage, and performance and payment bonds.
To see your agency's specific statutory requirements, use MRSC's Find Your Contracting Requirements tool.
There are three recurring questions MRSC receives regarding public works projects:
- Do we have to go out for competitive bids for this project?
If the cost of a public works project exceeds your agency's bid limits, you must use a formal competitive bidding process, small works roster process, or limited public works process. To find out if competitive bidding is required for your project, use MRSC's Find Your Contracting Requirements tool.
- Is maintenance considered public works and is it subject to prevailing wages?
As mentioned earlier, the definition of "public work" excludes "ordinary maintenance," which based on WAC 296-127-010 can be defined as work that is performed by agency personnel to provide regular or preventive maintenance.
For instance, using agency personnel to clean a sewer or a roof would likely be ordinary maintenance, but replacing a deteriorating bridge or contracting with a private company to clean a sewer or a roof would probably be considered a public work.
MRSC's position is that agencies should approach maintenance projects conservatively and treat them as public works, subject to prevailing wages and other public works laws.
- Must we pay prevailing wages for everything?
Prevailing wages must be paid on all public works projects and on maintenance projects performed by contract. Prevailing wages must also be paid on some contracts which can be considered purchased services.
However, there are some exceptions that are very fact-dependent. For a prevailing wage determination, contact the Department of Labor & Industries.
Public Works Topics
For more information about public works contracting in Washington, see the topics below: