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Centre County approves controversial contractor ordinance

Plus: Penn State, other state-related universities' spending of taxpayer dollars lacks transparency

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June 29, 2023
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Inside this edition: Controversial contractor ordinance passes in Centre County, state-related universities’ use of public dollars lacks oversight, and how Pa. has (and hasn’t) spent billions of COVID-19 stimulus money.
The Centre County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved the controversial Responsible Contractor Ordinance by a vote of 2-1, with Democrats Mark Higgins and Amber Concepcion voting in favor. Republican Steve Dershem voted against it.

The ordinance is slated to go into effect July 27 and will only apply to Centre County Government’s public construction contracts that total more than $250,000, according to reporting from Halie Kines, the Centre Daily Times’ local government reporter.

We spoke with Kines about her ongoing coverage of the ordinance debate. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the Responsible Contractor Ordinance? How will it change current practice? 

What the RCO really does is define what “responsible” means for Centre County public projects. The county code requires the Board of Commissioners to award public works contracts to the lowest responsible and responsive bidder. But because there is limited guidance on what “responsible” means, the county proposed a Responsible Contractor Ordinance with those guidelines and requirements. 

A big talking point of the RCO is that it will require the county to use contractors with at least 70% of the craft labor workforce employed on the project (to) be enrolled in or (have) completed an apprenticeship training program, or a journeyperson. But there are many other things listed in the ordinance that play into the safety factor. For example, a contractor can’t bid on a project if they’ve been convicted of any crime relating to its contracting business in the past 10 years.

Why do supporters believe the ordinance is necessary?

Worker safety is a top goal of this ordinance. As many pointed out during the public hearing Tuesday, five construction workers have died on the job in Centre County in the past five years. So I think that alone shows it can happen anywhere, including Happy Valley. The RCO requires the contractors to have satisfactory records of past performances and a crew with [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] safety training, among other things. 

Supporters also say it’ll promote workforce development and help protect the taxpayers in Centre County, as RCOs lead to fewer change orders, delays and cost overrun on jobs and ensure high-quality work is done.

What are the potential negative ramifications?

Opponents to the RCO fear it will limit who is able to bid on county projects and will prevent smaller, local contractors from (doing) county work. An example given goes like this: I have a small construction company of 50 employees, and most have been working here for decades. They have 20 (or) 30-plus years of experience in the field, but because they didn’t go through an apprenticeship training, they won’t qualify to work on these projects. Why is one form of training better than another? 

With that, some worry that the ordinance is too restrictive and local contractors won’t be able to meet the requirements, leading to more people from outside of Centre County working on local projects. Others are concerned that it will increase the costs of future county projects and will favor unions over nonunion companies. 

What are the biggest misconceptions about the ordinance?

The ordinance only applies to public construction contracts with the Centre County Government over $250,000. It doesn’t force other municipalities to follow the ordinance, and it doesn’t say anything about unions.

Is there anything else readers should know about the RCO? 

Time will tell how this works out for Centre County. Other counties, municipalities, and school districts in Pennsylvania have adopted similar RCOs, so it’s not a new concept. In the past, the county hasn’t had many projects that would fall under this ordinance, but it will have at least one large project — the renovation of the former Centre Crest building — in the near future that will fall under the ordinance. 

I really encourage residents to read the entire ordinance on the county’s website. As with most things, there’s a lot in it and not everything can be included in a single news article!

Sarah Rafacz, State College editor
“Tuition vouchers in any form redirect taxpayer resources that could be used to support public schools and the students they serve to private and religious schools. Pennsylvania has a moral and constitutional responsibility to fund its existing system of public education.”

—A broad group of unions that represent teachers, state workers, and building trades wrote to Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro about his support for funding private school vouchers
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John D. snapped this photo on a bike ride on South Nixon Road in Ferguson Township, Centre County. 

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» June 29-July 1: The Knoxville Deerfield Volunteer Fire Company hosts its firemen’s carnival in Tioga County.

» June 30: Enjoy Sips & Sounds Downtown, a new outdoor food and drink festival in State College.

» July 1-8: Barclay Square is filled with concerts, food vendors, artisans, and more for Punxsutawney Festival in the Park.

» July 4: Central PA 4th Fest is jam-packed with activities, including a parade, car show, fireworks, and live music.

» July 4: Fort Roberdeau hosts Star Spangled 4th to celebrate Independence Day.
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