How Rockwood Mansion will cost you money, thanks to Tom Gordon

Filed in Delaware by on September 12, 2013

Tom Gordon Rob Tornoe cartoon New Castle County Rockwood Mansion

As a political cartoonist, I’ve come across my fair share of head-scratching decisions made by bumbling bureaucrats trying to please conflicting special interests while propping themselves up at the same time. But what’s going on now between historic Rockwood Mansion and New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon might be the single most boneheaded issue I’ve come across in a long time.

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About the Author ()

Rob Tornoe is a local cartoonist and columnist, and can be seen in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Press of Atlantic City, The News Journal, and the Dover Post chain of newspapers. He's also a contributor to Media Matters and WHYY. Web site: Twitter: @RobTornoe

Comments (25)

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  1. Jason330 says:

    Prevailing wage laws can only be viewed as a culprit here if there were plans to have work done off the books, by illegal immigrants or by some other destabilizing scheme.

    Why can’t the friends of Rockwood pay labor what it is worth?

  2. Geezer says:

    “Why can’t the friends of Rockwood pay labor what it is worth?”

    Why is union scale “what it is worth”? Indeed, if we were paying the going rate, why would we need laws forcing the taxpayers to pay more?

  3. cassandra m says:

    Union scale ≠ prevailing wage.

  4. Jason330 says:

    Look at the bigger picture please. It was once a settled fact that unionized labor acts in the economic interests of the middle class. Today we a entertaining a load of right-wing horseshit to the contrary because we are trained to obsess on instances when that might not be so apparent.

    That’s what I don’t like about my friend’s post. is It is hacky anti-union bullshit of the style you’d expect to see the CRI put up.

  5. Rob Tornoe says:

    It’s not anti-union – it’s anti-idiotic politicians. In fact, I specifically say I support unions, and think these type of narrow-minded decisions do more to discredit unions in the eyes of taxpayers than anything CRI writes.

    In this case, there was legislation that would have granted a narrow exception to allow The Friends of Rockwood to use the money they raised to do the repair that were needed without having to follow NCCo’s prevailing wage rules.

    Just one example – according to prevailing wage rules, plumbers can be paid no less than $72 an hour on county jobs (for a quick comparison, in Kent County it’s $22/hour). The Friends couldn’t afford to pay that with the $100k they raised, so they had to abandon their plans, give back the money they raised, and it’s left to NCCo to do the repairs.

    Politicians not only have a duty to protect workers, but also taxpayers, and this specific instance, where a nonprofit raised the money to do repairs to a county-owned property that would benefit taxpayers at no cost, just seems ridiculous to me.

  6. Geezer says:

    OK, I’ll look at the bigger picture: In Europe, unions formed political parties, which led to worker-friendly policies throughout their countries. In the US, unions fought only for their own workers, and our current health-care policies, for the biggest example, are the result.

    To bring it back to a smaller picture, I see no reason that taxpayers should be the only ones left in American society to support the union movement. We end up with plumbers working for a contractor making $72/hour while 10% of the state’s directly employed workforce is making sub-poverty wages. What, in that picture, have unions solved?

  7. cassandra m says:

    It is a shame, really, but this is where Rob seems to be getting his info from. An opinion piece where its authors have pulled out the most alarming data that isn’t even contextualized. The Plumbers/Pipefitters/ Steamfitters number they cite is for Heavy Construction, even though Rockwood would likely have a Building Construction determination — that rate would be $59 NCCo vs 49.26 Kent.

    The other thing to note is that prevailing wages are “all in” — it includes employer paid benefits and taxes on employees. So the *appallingly high* yearly wage of their plumber of $149,822 is *at best* a $74,911 wage that this worker is taxed on. Seriously, go ask your employer what your *actual* yearly cost to them is — salary, benefits, everything rolled in. If you’ve ever thought about going freelance at your job — the usual rules of thumb for how much you should try to charge is between 2.5 – 3.5 times your base salary. So *you* can pay all of your taxes, pay your health insurance, put money aside for retirement, etc. Much of the effort around making prevailing wages toxic is an effort to get working people to cheerlead on the elimination of benefits for another group of working people.

  8. Geezer says:

    It’s not about working people vs. working people, Cassandra. It’s about who is paying those working people. With few exceptions, those paying the most are taxpayers, because public unions are the last ones standing.

    If the government didn’t spend so much on prevailing wages, they might have more to pay the employees making $20,000 per annum.

    Now explain to me why a working person making $8/hour should go to the mat to preserve $60/hour wages for plumbers whose unions, last time I checked, were quite exclusive about who they let in.

  9. Rob Tornoe says:

    So I think what I’m saying is getting twisted around a bit. I don’t support the repeal of prevailing wage laws, and I think unions are very important. Are we clear?

    In this specific case, where council had the opportunity to eek out a small, limited exception for a non-profit to do work on a historically-important landmark with money they have raised without regard to county-dictated labor rules (only being enforced because Rockwood, for some reason, is still owned by the county instead of the state), council and Tom Gordon made a boneheaded decision.

    Keep in mind the county’s prevailing wage laws only apply because this is a county-owned property, even though it’s run by a nonprofit. So it’s already a unique situation to start. We’re not talking about building a flyaway or repaving a highway.

    Allowing Rockwood to make the repairs would not have threatened labor rates, or future prevailing wage laws. But like most thing with local pols, they don’t see the forest for the trees, and I think do more damage to the reputation of those they’re supposedly trying to protect – union labors.

    Think about it from this perspective – had Gordon allowed this to happen, he’d be praised for a common-sense way to fix up an important landmark without costing taxpayers a dime, and no one would be talking about prevailing wage laws at all.

  10. cassandra m says:

    Not all plumbers belong to unions. Not even most of them. And, once again, prevailing wages are not the same thing as union scale. Although I will stipulate that this is a successful RW talking point.

    That plumber’s check does not show $60/hour (unless that plumber is self-employed). His employer has to certify that this plumbers wages + benefits meet the minimum prevailing wage. That plumber is likely to be making closer to $30 before taxes. So $8/hour people are basically being asked to produce some manufactured outrage over the fact that one group of skilled people are being paid halfway decent wages AND benefits.

  11. Geezer says:

    You make the error of assuming that because something is a RW talking point, it can’t be true. And of course you’re indulging in the same thing by parroting union talking points.

    So tell me: Why should an $8/hour government employee fight for a plumber getting union wages and benefits, regardless of whether that plumber is in a union? All you did was tell me that he shouldn’t, because the disparity isn’t as big as it looks.

  12. cassandra m says:

    You make the error of assuming that because something is a RW talking point, it can’t be true. And of course you’re indulging in the same thing by parroting union talking points.

    Actually, no. I’m bidding on, proposing on and building jobs that use prevailing wages, union wages and sometimes just our own wages all of the time. So I do know specifically the differences and how to make money on these. So, yes, it is a RW talking point and it is wrong.

    Unless you want to tell me about the construction jobs you are trying to win against contractors who are trying to bid day labor.

    ps. The rules for performing wage determinations, and what is supposed to be included in those determinations are on the DoL website.

  13. Jason330 says:

    “Why fundraise when Unions can bill the tax payers?”

    Rob – You want to take a whack at Gordon. Fine. The problem is that you are doing so by advancing a conservative talking point that unions DON’T act in the economic interests of the middle class.

    Their aim is to discredit unions in general by making the most of instances like this.

  14. Rob Tornoe says:

    I take your point, but I’m talking about one specific (and very limited) incident. There have been plenty of times labor unions have deserved criticism, and I’ve drawn plenty of cartoons about them (mostly in New Jersey).

    Just because right-wingers want to destroy unions doesn’t me I do, and it doesn’t prevent me from criticizing them when I feel they deserve it. In this case, it’s less about them and more about Gordon.

    For instance, I support many of Obama’s policies. But I’m not going to remain silent when he does something I do agree with because it helps right-wingers.

  15. Jason330 says:

    I see your point too, but a cartoon is a blunt instrument. When I read the CRI headline on this slamming unions, I’m going to cringe.

  16. Geezer says:

    My understanding is that prevailing wage is usually pegged to union wages; that’s how it was described when the state and county laws were passed. If Delaware’s is not, what is it pegged to?

  17. Occam says:

    Not to worry Jason- you can read all about the problems with the prevailing wage law here, courtesy of Dr. Stapleford. And it does not require “slamming unions”, but it does ask you to think about why wages are set based on a BLS survey of a few construction firms (most firms do not end up replying to the survey of how much their wages per hour are), and why there is such a huge gap in PW between NCC and downstate.

    “How the Prevailing Wage Law Stopped Progress”

  18. waterpirate says:

    I will be attending the Blue Collar Task Force public meetings in Sussex. Maybe concerned folks about this project should attend the meeting in their county?

  19. cassandra m says:

    If Delaware’s is not, what is it pegged to?

    It is pegged to an annual survey of contractors and other groups employing construction labor. The regs are here and the determination rules are pages 10 to 14. Union wages are reported from those contractors who just use union labor for their work.

    And I looked at the CRI mess re: prevailing wage (and their laughable analysis from a few years ago that they base this on) — I could spend all day listing out the problems with this. I don’t have that kind of time today, but while they are trying to plump for another wage survey, the wave their hands at the fact that the Prevailing Wage and the OES wage data are apples and oranges. The Prevailing Wage is the All In labor number for employers. The OES wage data is the non-taxed payout to employees. And this is the game — pretend that the prevailing wage is a windfall to workers while trying to press for wage numbers that do not accommodate real labor costs.

  20. cassandra m says:

    @waterpirate — what are the Blue Collar Task Force meetings?

  21. Geezer says:

    I appreciate the opportunity to ask questions of someone who actually sees this law in practice — and having read it now, I don’t envy you.

    I know the intent of prevailing wage laws was to keep contractors from low-balling labor to lower their bids. Does it work? Is the quality of the work higher?

  22. waterpirate says:

    As reported on several news outlets, a task force was created to hold a meeting in each county and report back to the Governor. The purpose of the task force was listed as gathering info on how to jump-start a blue-collar recovery in DE.

    Clearly I am interested in that topic, and I mentioned it here due to the prevailing wage scale is sort of tangled up in that. Organised labor and the unions are also a part of any ongoing discussion to that end.

  23. cassandra m says:

    @Geezer — I don’t want to leave the impression that I think that the prevailing wage structure shouldn’t be examined, either. But if it is time to re-look at it, I don’t want to see it done as political pressure to suppress the wages and benefits of working people. The prevailing wage law originally was about making sure that government construction projects (tending to be large) didn’t destabilize local construction wages.

    The quality of work gotten on government projects isn’t really tied to prevailing wages, IME. Pretty much as with anything else, quality is found where you have a group of people committed to delivering great work for a fair price. And where there are Government overseers who know how contractors work. One of the real problems with pricing construction work is that the low price that the newspaper might report a contractor won a job with is unlikely to be the final price of the job. And if the winner was a contractor that was a clear outlier to the rest of the bidding pack, you can pretty safely bet that that contractor will be trying to submit enough change orders to recoup the money he or she left on the table. It isn’t often that we see an analysis of bid price vs. construction complete price for government construction in the media and it is the construction complete price that taxpayers should care about. And they should care *why* bid prices aren’t the final prices — because that will begin to tell you if the Government isn’t getting good plans and specs or if they are picking the wrong contractors. But instead of taking a look as to whether taxpayers are getting good value for their construction dollar, we have this fight over whether construction workers are being paid too much.

  24. cassandra m says:

    @waterpirate — Thanks for that reminder. Here is some info on the meetings from WDEL.

  25. waterpirate says:

    I am going to use the meeting as a in road to open a dialogue up about the quality of work, or the lack of trained skilled blue-collar workers in general. We are suffering a lack of trained labor in Sussex, while the construction boom continues.

    I would also like to see a re-examination of how and why scale wages are set and applied to projects. This post irritates me because there were players on the field ready and willing to do the work at fair market value, but the job got hoisted to the tax payers, or not done at all due to scale being assumed?????