A citizen group who has raised thousands of dollars to help rehabilitate a conservatory at New Castle County's Rockwood Mansion say they've been forced to abandon the project after the county council voted to require the contract to be subject to the county's public bidding rules.
June Zappa, president of The Friends of Rockwood, said the group would be returning $80,000 in private donations after Tuesday night's vote, saying they couldn't afford the rehab if the contractor used had to be hired under the county's prevailing wage rules.
Prevailing wage is a standard threshold paid by the county for construction and engineering jobs that advocates say is established to create a fair bidding process for local contractors.
But for the Friends of Rockwood, using prevailing wage would mean they couldn't get the best bang for their buck, making the project too expensive to complete.
"We're going to return the [money]," Zappa said following the vote. "And the $15,000 we spent for architectural fees and plans is gone. I think we're done as a friends group."
The ordinance, introduced by Councilman John Cartier (D-Brandywine East) earlier this summer, sought to explicitly grant an exception from prevailing wage rules to non-profit groups using exclusively private donations to fund projects at county facilities. The bill had been tabled through the council's early-August recess, in part because it caused some consternation in the labor community, but was brought up for a vote at the end of Tuesday night's meeting. It was defeated 7-6.
Cartier said the bill would not change any of the bidding rules in place when county funds are being used.
"This was not purely about the Friends of Rockwood," Cartier said. "This was to be a way to create a standard and a path forward for privately raised funds for projects on county property.
"I think the vote tonight definitely sent a message that wasn't entirely positive," he added. "I think this could discourage other people from stepping up and doing that type of thing for county assets."
Critics of the legislation, however, feared it could be abused, prompting groups to hire disreputable contractors that perform shoddy work, potentially putting the county at risk.
"New Castle County has a responsibility for what happens to its facilities," said Councilman Bill Bell (D-Middletown).
Antonio Prado, communications director for County Executive Tom Gordon, agreed.
"This is not just about prevailing wage," Prado said following the vote. "There are liability issues that could occur and the county executive is concerned about that."
Cartier, however, dismissed those concerns.
"There's no reason to think we couldn't draft appropriate insurance provisions," Cartier said. "There are ways to secure that liability. That wasn't insurmountable."
Page 2 of 2 - Zappa indicated liability concerns were likely a front for lawmakers caving to union pressures.
"We had a signed Memorandum of Understanding with the county executive and it was rescinded because of all the unions," she said. "So we'll withdraw from Rockwood and leave it to the county. God bless them."
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Gordon said he's "not the bad guy."
"When we left [power] in 2004, the mansion and conservatory were in pristine condition," he said. "Now it's destroyed. What happened over the last eight years? Why didn't anybody pick up a paint brush?"