Contractor denies fault over school Officials blamed for Fallston delay

September 05, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Triangle General Contractors Inc., the Hanover-based company that is building Fallston Middle School, said the Harford County government and the school system are to blame for the building's delayed opening.

"Triangle did its absolute best to get this school open in a timely manner," said Triangle's lawyer, William M. Huddles of Braude & Margulies in Baltimore.

"The school was delayed because of problems that were not its responsibility and not its doing," Mr. Huddles said last week.

Jack J. Leone, owner of Triangle, did not return phone calls.

The opening of Fallston Middle has been delayed for two weeks because the 116,000-square-foot school failed to pass the fire marshal's inspection less than a week before it was due to open.

The school, at Carrs Mill and Fallston roads, is now scheduled to open Sept. 13.

Its 850 students got a four-day waiver -- they will not have to make up those days -- from the State Board of Education, but they will have to make up the other days. The rest of the county's 35,000 students started school Monday.

Mr. Huddles said construction was delayed for many reasons, including a dispute between county and federal authorities over possible wetlands, a heavy snowstorm in March and a lack of permanent water and electricity sources at the site.

"In my opinion, Triangle is not responsible for one day of . . . damages. They made a diligent effort to get the school open on time," Mr. Huddles said.

Joe Licata, supervisor of construction for Harford schools, said hTC he could not comment on Triangle's claims because the issue of culpability may have to be settled in court.

School sources who are familiar with the contract between Triangle and the school system said Triangle is responsible for providing its own water and electricity, as well as all permits and inspections. Such requirements are standard in almost all construction contracts.

Penalty clause

Triangle's contract includes a $1,500-a-day penalty for any delay in completion beyond the scheduled date of July 15.

Mr. Huddles said Triangle, which has been in business since the late 1970s, has built dozens of buildings and "has never been assessed a penny for being late." The delays at Fallston Middle were "all the responsibility" of either the county or the school system, he said.

In a four-page letter to County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, Mr. Huddles said ". . . county officials simply passed the buck and blames the delays entirely on Triangle. This is nothing less than an attempt to divert attention from the county's own shortcomings."

County spokesman George Harrison said local government officials had nothing to do with the school, with the exception of routine plumbing and electrical inspections. "Fallston Middle is a project of the school system, and the county would not interfere," he said.

Mr. Huddles disagreed. "There were meetings held in June between Triangle and county officials, and it was discussed in great detail what was needed to be done by Aug. 30 to get the school open," he said.

Mr. Huddles said that county officials, whom he did not name, promised Triangle that if the contractor could finish the classroom and administration areas by Aug. 30, the school would open.

"And there was also an understanding that the sprinkler system and the fire alarm system did not have to be finished in the gym wing until later," Mr. Huddles said.

"The county people said they would coordinate this with the fire marshal and make sure it was OK. So Triangle spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime attempting to have everything but the gym wing ready by Aug. 30."

The building failed the fire inspection, partly because of the incomplete fire alarm and sprinkler systems.

"The county dropped the ball," Mr. Huddles said. "The county failed to coordinate this plan with the fire marshal. He came out and did the inspection and insisted the fire alarm and sprinkler system had to be completed in the whole school -- those were his main concerns."

Mr. Huddles said the fire marshal's other concerns, such as blocked exits, could have been fixed in time for the school to open.

Claims disputed

However, Allen L. Ward, deputy chief fire marshal, disputes that.

"In the conversations we had with Triangle we made it clear that we were requesting all [fire safety] systems be in service and that we would not allow the school to open if there were any portions of the building which were not up to fire code standards," Mr. Ward said Thursday.

Mr. Ward said this information was repeated to Triangle throughout the construction of the building.

Mr. Harrison said no meetings ever took place between county officials and Triangle. And he said county officials would never have promised to "make a deal" with the fire marshal's office, a state agency.

"The county has no control over the fire marshal's office and would never ask them to even consider passing something they saw as unsafe. That's outrageous. These are very serious

charges," Mr. Harrison said.

The inspection by fire safety officials Aug. 23 showed potentially life-threatening problems in seven categories.

In addition to the incomplete automatic sprinkler system and fire alarm system, the emergency lighting system did not work, parts of the building had yet to be fire-proofed, ceiling tiles were missing, interior doors designed to shut out smoke in the case of a fire had not yet been installed, and some exits were blocked with construction materials.

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