School building delays test officials' patience Legislation considered

September 19, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

An article in the Sept. 19 editions of The Sun incorrectly stated the reason why Peter J. Scarpulla Contractors Inc. stopped work on Church Creek Elementary School in the Harford County community of Belcamp. Gerard M. Amedoro, Scarpulla's corporate secretary, said the work on the school was stopped because the firm was having financial difficulties.

* The Sun regrets the error.

This has not been a good year for school construction projects in Harford County.

First, Fallston Middle opened two weeks later than the rest of the county's 46 schools, thanks to construction delays stemming from what the school system said were problems with its general contractor, Triangle General Contractors Inc.

Then Peter J. Scarpulla Contractors Inc., the general contractor for Church Creek Elementary, went bankrupt, halting construction at that Belcamp school. The school system already had announced that Church Creek would be delayed for a year because of contractor problems.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The final straw for some school board members came at Monday night's meeting, when school officials revealed that it would cost $2.2 million to renovate Havre de Grace Elementary, not the $1 million the school system had projected back in June.

"Clearly we have a system that is not working and it needs a complete overhaul," said an exasperated George Lisby, a school board member.

That's a sentiment shared by most county officials, including County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and County Council president Jeffrey D. Wilson.

Mr. Wilson said he plans to introduce legislation which will help weed out insolvent or incompetent contractors by requiring them to hire only skilled labor.

He said some contractors are submitting artificially low bids and then hiring unskilled workers to keep their costs down. The practice contributes to delays as well as shoddy workmanship, he said.

But councilman Robert S. Wagner, R-District E, said the school board should share at least some of the blame.

"I can't believe the foul-ups at Church Creek and Fallston Middle. I don't believe all of the blame should go to the contractor; at least 70 percent of it should go to the board. They should have had their thumbs on these contractors the whole time," he said.

The board has scheduled a meeting for Sept. 27 to discuss revamping the school system's construction department, from how the school system chooses contractors to how it develops estimates of cost and time needed for construction.

Board member Keith Williams said he wants the school system to hire engineers or others with expertise in school construction to stay on site and make sure contractors are doing their jobs properly.

The school system, in the middle of its most ambitious building program ever, has three construction supervisors supervising $40 million in construction projects, Mr. Williams said.

"The $1,500-a-day late penalty we have is obviously not much of a deterrent," Mr. Williams said. Contractors can challenge the penalty by claiming delays were caused by an act of God, or events beyond their control, he said.

Triangle General Contractors Inc., the Hanover-based firm that is building Fallston Middle, is not responsible for any of the delays at that school, according to its lawyer, William M. Huddles. The school, which was to have been completed July 15, is still not finished.

Others, however, say the school system needs to be more realistic in its scheduling.

"The penalty is not the problem, lousy contractors are not the problem. The problem is our scheduling," said Joe Licata, supervisor of construction for Harford schools.

Mr. Licata said the school system should allow more time to build schools. For example, the school system allows 13 months to build a 65,000-square-foot elementary school.

Fountain Green Elementary in Bel Air, built by Roy Kirby & Sons, was finished in 13 months and opened on time on Aug. 30.

"At Fountain Green the contractor managed the schedule well, he had good subcontractors and everything fell together perfectly," he said. But the time line is so tight there's almost no room for mistakes.

Construction on Fallston Middle began in May 1992 and was to have been completed 14 months later, in July. That project was delayed because Triangle took the school system to court to oppose the original lowest bidder, H.A. Harris Co. Triangle claimed Harris discriminated against minorities.

H.A. Harris is building Country Walk Elementary and finishing Church Creek Elementary.

County officials also are looking at the possibility of freeing up school construction money more quickly. Mrs. Rehrmann said the county could release construction money earlier if that would help.

Currently, county money does not become available until July 1, the start of the fiscal year. Construction can't start until the money is released, Mr. Licata said.

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