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Public Works Contracts

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 special purpose districts.

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.

Examples of public works projects include road construction, roof repair, HVAC upgrades, building remodeling, or parking meter installation.

What is "Ordinary Maintenance"?

New regulation: Effective August 23, 2019, the definition of "ordinary maintenance" in WAC 296-127-010(7)(b)(iii) has changed to "maintenance work performed by the regular employees of the state or any county, municipality, or political subdivision created by its laws." See WSR 19-15-119. In addition, the citation has changed to subsection 7(b)(ii).

We will be updating this section soon with further information.

The definition of "public work" above specifically excludes "ordinary maintenance." “Ordinary maintenance” is not defined by statute, but WAC 296-127-010(7)(b)(iii) defines it as follows, for purposes of prevailing wage requirements:

7(b)(iii) Ordinary maintenance which is defined as work not performed by contract and that is performed on a regularly scheduled basis (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, semiannually, but not less frequently than once per year), to service, check, or replace items that are not broken; or work not performed by contract that is not regularly scheduled but is required to maintain the asset so that repair does not become necessary.

Under this definition, for example, programmatic tree trimming and cleaning catch basins and sewer/storm mains would be ordinary maintenance, if performed by agency forces.

So, what about ordinary maintenance that is contracted out? Under L&I’s definition above, ordinary maintenance that is contracted out is subject to prevailing wage requirements, which is what L&I cares about. In Spokane v. Department of Labor and Industries, 100 Wn. App. 805, 819-20 (2000), the state court of appeals approved of L&I’s definition and concluded that ordinary maintenance, when performed by contract, is "public work" subject to prevailing wage law.

But, is ordinary maintenance when performed by contract considered a “public work” for all other purposes – bid limits, bonds, and retainage? We think likely so, because there are not really two types of “public work,” one subject only to prevailing wages and the other also subject to all the other requirements that otherwise apply to public works.

Although some agencies and their attorneys take the position that contracted ordinary maintenance is not a public work except for prevailing wage purposes, the safer position is, of course, to treat contracted ordinary maintenance as a public work to which the following apply: prevailing wages, bid and performance bonds, retainage, and competitive bidding if above the applicable statutory threshold for bids.

MRSC's position is that agencies should approach all maintenance projects conservatively and treat them as public works, subject to prevailing wages and all other public works requirements. Except for relatively small contracts, competitive bids or quotes are good business practices. And if your agency subscribes to the position that contracted ordinary maintenance is not a public work except for prevailing wage purposes, you lose the protection that bonding and retainage provide.

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.

Competitive Bidding

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 other competitive bidding including 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 $350,000 (or $300,000 for port districts and irrigation districts).

Most public works projects require prevailing wages, retainage, and performance and payment bonds.

To see your agency's statutory competitive bidding requirements, use MRSC's Find Your Contracting Requirements tool.

Public Works Topics

For more information about public works contracting in Washington, see the topics below:

Last Modified: October 25, 2019