Scuttlebiz: The biggest company you never heard of is building Plant Vogtle

One of metro Augusta’s largest private-sector employers was created earlier this year. And nobody noticed.

 

Which is pretty much what its creators wanted.

If you never heard of Richmond County Constructors LLC, that’s because it exists primarily on paper. It is a joint-venture labor-management firm Bechtel Corp. has created to employ more than 4,000 union construction workers at Plant Vogtle’s units 3 and 4.

Bechtel is picking up the pieces left by previous contractor Westinghouse Electric Co., which imploded earlier this year from cost overruns and delays at the Southern Co. site near Waynesboro and the V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina.

After being unceremoniously formed two days after Westinghouse’s March 29 bankruptcy filing, the Bechtel-led shell company has started “onboarding” welders, pipefitters and other “craft” tradespeople in recent weeks at the site.

When at the SCANA Corp. and Santee Cooper abandoned their reactors in July – a project that also was managed by Westinghouse – Vogtle became the nation’s sole new commercial reactor site.

Vogtle operator Georgia Power said in August it would plow ahead with the project with Bechtel at the helm, replacing the tangled management regime (Toshiba, Westinghouse, Fluor Corp., Shaw Group, Stone &Webster, Chicago Bridge &Iron…did I leave anyone out?) that dated back to the site’s first concrete pour in 2013.

Vogtle is far from Bechtel’s first nuclear rodeo. And the company is not a exactly a fresh face at the site.

According to regulatory filings, roughly 220 Bechtel employees came on board in January to help Westinghouse manage the project’s “nuclear island,” the section where the reactors actually sit.

Fred deSousa, a spokesman for San Francisco-based Bechtel’s nuclear division, said Richmond County Constructors is a partnership with Atlanta-based Williams Plant Services LLC. He would not disclose the ownership split but acknowledged Bechtel leads the joint venture.

By my estimation, the venture’s employee count makes it the metro area’s No. 3 private-sector company after Savannah River Site contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (5,600 workers) and University Health Care System (4,600 workers).

Aside from the unique timing of Richmond County Constructors’ creation, the most interesting about the placeholder company might be its name: How, exactly, does “Richmond County” fit in?

Plant Vogtle sits entirely in rural Burke County, where the operation makes up more than 80 percent of the county’s tax digest. Also, the legal address for Richmond County Constructors is in the suburban Columbia County community of Evans.

Perhaps the name is an acknowledgement of where most area union halls are based?

AT ANY RATE…: The main reason Bechtel and Williams are funneling union tradespeople through a proxy corporation is to keep dirt off their hands, which is something that appears to happen often on large labor projects with federal oversight.

By subcontracting union labor to an asset-free shell company, the corporate parents avoid most of the landmines associated with collective-bargaining agreements, such as run-of-the-mill lawsuits but mostly underfunded pension liabilities.

Union pension funds, much like those for government workers, tend to pay overly generous benefits – even when fund managers make poor investment choices. Unions pensions strong arm contractors for poor decisions in much the way government pensions demand taxpayers kick the can down the road.

Federal law says the Pension Benefit Gauranty Corp., the government’s bailout vehicle for unfunded-pensions, can intervene only after all other payment resources are exhausted.

Translation: Whoever is at the dinner table when the check arrives picks up the tab.

For example, when Bechtel Savannah River Inc. went “out of business” at SRS, its pension withdrawal liability was around $17 million. The liability never went away; it merely was transferred to companies in the collective bargaining unit, some of which were small local firms whose pockets were nowhere near as deep as Bechtel’s.

Fair? Probably not. But when the federal government tried to shift contractor benefits to 401(k)-type plans several years ago, so many people balked that the idea was scrapped.

A lot of folks, apparently, prefer the system just the way it is.

Vogtle isn’t the only shell game in town right now. Just last week the Department of Energy awarded the $4.7 billion SRS liquid waste contract to Savannah River EcoManagement LLC, a paper consortium of BWXT Technical Services Group Inc., Honeywell International Inc. and….wait for it….Bechtel.

BANK ON IT: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. recently released market share rankings for Augusta-Aiken’s $8.28 billion banking industry.

The results are little changed from last year, with a few exceptions: SunTrust moved up from No. 5 to No. 4, overtaking Security Federal Bank; Queensborough National Bank &Trust Co. moved up from No. 9 to No. 8, moving past State Bank and Trust Co.

And, of course, last year’s longtime No. 2, Georgia Bank &Trust, has a new name: South State Bank.

Here’s the full list ranked by deposit share:

1) Wells Fargo Bank, $1.791 billion

2) South State Bank, $1,395 billion

3) Bank of America, $940 million

4) SunTrust Bank, $726 million

5) Security Federal Bank, $621 million

6) Regions Bank, $587 million

7) First-Citizens Bank &Trust Co., $507 million

8) Queensborough National Bank &Trust Co., $468 million

9) State Bank and Trust Co., $452 million

10) Synovus Bank, $184,716

…AND JUST FOR FUN: To see what the metro area’s banking industry looked like long ago, I went back as far as the FDIC would allow: 1994. Back then, the metro area’s total deposits were $3.39 billion.

Each bank below has ties in one way or another to the current top 10, but only one – Security Federal – has the same name (even though it was a savings and loan back then). Also, remember banking regulations back then were a little wonky, as reflected in all the state-line divisions.

Enjoy your trip down memory lane:

1) First Union National Bank of Georgia, $667 million

2) Bankers First Savings Bank, $430 million

3) Trust Company Bank of Augusta, $323 million

4) NationsBank of Georgia, $310 million

5) NationsBank of South Carolina $288 million

6) Palmetto Federal Savings Bank of South Carolina, $273 million

7) Allied Bank of Georgia, $215 million

8) Security Federal Savings Bank of South Carolina, $172 million

9) Georgia Bank &Trust Company $133 million

10) Wachovia Bank of South Carolina $102 million

FINANCIAL PROS (OR PROSE?): Queensborough Senior Vice President Dagan Sharpe and I have a few things in common. We’re about the same age, have two children, have the same color hair, have names that start with a “D” and we both were journalism majors.

We differ in that he’s smarter (c’mon, he chose a banking career) and that he’s written a book.

Sharpe’s Highways End is 240 pages of fiction, but it draws upon some personal life lessons and many common-sense financial virtues he extols as the bank’s wealth services director.

“It is a love story centered centered around how often times we get caught in the pursuit of our passions and what we believe will make us happy rather than the truly meaningful things in our life,” he said.

Want to check it out? You can easily find it through the online retailer that sells everything from A to Z.

GIVE ‘EM SOME CREDIT: The recently released 2017 mid-year Georgia Membership Benefits report released by the Credit Union National Association said Georgia credit unions provided provided $217,101,677 in “direct financial benefits” to the state’s 2.1 million members during the 12-month period ending in June.

That works out to about $197 per member household.

The nonprofit cooperatives often charge lower fees and offer lower-interest loan rates. They also do many of the same things as banks but, obviously, not everything. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have banks, would we?

SOME LIGHTER FARE: What’s new in the local retail world? Well, the Metro Diner at 2820 Washington Road (the site of the former Somewhere in Augusta) is scheduled to open to the public on Oct. 24. But the 4,600-square-foot eatery will have “soft opening” charity events benefiting Ronald McDonald House Charities of Augusta and the United Way of the CSRA on Oct. 21 and 22, respectively.

Out in Evans, construction bids have gone out on the 2,700-square-foot Flying Biscuit Cafe, a regional diner specializing in all-day breakfast entrees, at the new Market Place at Riverwood strip mall behind the Publix-anchored Riverwood Town Center development at Washington Road and William Few Parkway.

EVERYTHING HAS A COST: I didn’t expect a pro-life fundraiser to provide a thought-provoking economic lesson, but that’s precisely what happened this past week when I attended Augusta Care Pregnancy Center’s fall 2017 banquet as a guest at Jeff and Beth Annis.

The feature speaker was Michael Reagan, a radio personality and author best known as the adopted son of President Ronald Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman. What most don’t know about the Republican strategist is that he was sexually abused as a child by his day-camp counselor.

Reagan referenced a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that estimated the total lifetime cost to society for just one year of child abuse and neglect was $124 billion.

“Just extrapolate that year after year after year – those are the costs of so many of us who were abused,” Reagan said. “One pedophile will abuse 150 children in their lifetime.”

I’d be skeptical of that last figure if I had not grown up next door to a pedophile.

This man, we’ll call him 091073, no doubt abused many during the course of his miserable life. He was merely “caught” three times.

I wasn’t a victim, but I easily could have been. I was 9 when he tried to entice me.

My mother sent me over to his house to pick up a basket of tomatoes (he was an avid gardener) that he had offered in a neighborly gesture shortly after moving in.

When I told her about the odd way he asked me to sit with him and the strange things he said, she not-so-politely returned the tomatoes and promised him a heaping helping of buckshot if he ever looked my way again.

The threat of violent retribution – a seemingly reasonable response for rural Americans in 1981 – turned out to be a poor long-term strategy; it merely stopped 091073 from victimizing me. It didn’t dissuade him from molesting someone else’s child four years later. Nor did his brief incarceration from that event stop him from attempting to molest another child six years later.

At the banquet I sat next to Jeff’s brother, Augusta Superior Court Judge Michael N. Annis. He confirmed what we already know to be true: Child sexual abuse is extremely difficult to prosecute. People are reluctant to come forward, physical evidence is rare and the key testimony is from a child.

Reagan never told his father, one of America’s most beloved political figures, about the abuse until he was well into middle age.

The man who abused Reagan died in 2007 at age 82. During his keynote address, Reagan recalled a letter written by the deceased pedophile’s sister-in-law.

“She said he was as evil the day he died as he was when he was molesting you; you can finally rest,” he said.

As for my childhood next-door neighbor, he’s no longer hurting children either. He died in prison in 1998 as inmate No. 091073. His cost to society, sadly, lingers on.

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Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com

 

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