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Search Isn't Over

Council members rethink proposal offers for day labor site.

Several Herndon council members and the mayor have vowed not to give up the search for a new operator for the town's day labor hiring site, despite facing an early setback last week when an initial request for proposals was returned with no offers.

The largest obstacles to the project cited by potential bidders is a lack of perceived financial viability and commercial insurance liability policy complications, according to Elizabeth Hagg, community resources director for the Town of Herndon

"I see this as just a first step, and we're going to continue to look at what the reasons were for why there were no offers," said Mayor Steve DeBenedittis. "I think that we'll work and get a new formula going of what the town is prepared to offer and we'll see where we're at then."

In the initial request, the town had asked for proposals from any interested party looking to set up a hiring center either at a private site or by leasing a municipal site for a nominal rental fee, most likely the current location of the Herndon Official Workers Center in a municipal parking lot at 1481 Sterling Road, according to Hagg. A meeting was held for four potential bidders on Jan. 23, and interested parties were given until Feb. 9 to make an offer.

The Town Council released a request for proposals from capable parties to set up and operate a new day labor site in Herndon in early January. The goal was to find an operator who would require a check of worker authorization status before connecting a laborer with a potential employer, according to council members supporting the measure. The town's current work site, operated by non-profit organization Project Hope & Harmony, does not currently make these checks, as they say that it is not in their authority or responsibility to do so.

THE RECENT ANNOUNCEMENT stating that there were no immediate replacements for the current site was the latest in the ongoing struggle of the Herndon Official Workers Center, which has been a lightning rod for political controversy in Herndon since it was established in December of 2005.

It operates primarily with the assistance of an approximate $175,000 annual contract between Fairfax County and Project Hope & Harmony's parent organization, Reston Interfaith. The site has been granted the use of Herndon town property until December of this year. The Town of Herndon does not offer any direct financial assistance for the operation of the site, although they do provide municipal rental space at a nominal fee to Project Hope & Harmony.

Despite attracting more than 100 workers a day on average since its establishment, some, including the mayor, most members of the current Town Council and a number of residents, feel that it has encouraged illegal immigration in town and sends the wrong message to others about local resources being devoted to people who may not be U.S. residents.

In May of last year those council members won or re-took their seats in an election that has been largely described as a referendum on the hiring practices of the workers center.

The site has already been the subject of one lawsuit, filed by the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Judicial Watch on behalf of four Herndon residents and one Fairfax County resident, naming the Town of Herndon and Fairfax County as plaintiffs.

Proponents of the site have said that it has solved a major public nuisance: getting large numbers of work solicitors out of private commercial parking lots along Elden Street and into an organized center away from traffic.

If a new site is opened and the current site is closed, any workers caught soliciting employment on the streets can be cited or arrested by the Herndon Police Department for violation of a local anti-solicitation ordinance, passed with the initial establishment of the site.

THE LACK of proposals was most likely due to a perceived absence of investment return, according to Hagg, who made the announcement to Town Council and staff members at a Feb. 20 work session. But those parties, who were questioned about their lack of interest after the deadline, had said they might be interested if the town were to offer more concessions, such as providing town staff or financial considerations.

"Generally there's the perception that there's some [financial] risk in this," as there may not be many local workers who will be permitted to use the site, said Hagg. "Some have said that if the town would alleviate some of that risk, they might feel more comfortable."

The request was posted on the Internet, through direct contact with organizations and in local bulletins and newspapers, according to Diane Erway, purchasing agent for the Town of Herndon. Erway said that it was against town policy to release the names of those who were contacted about the proposal.

While the absence of proposals is a setback, it does not mean that an offer from the town cannot be reworked and met with a successful result, Erway said.

"There can be a wide variety of reasons for why there have been no bids," she said. "Either they could have had too many other projects at the moment or not enough resources."

"It doesn't mean that other ideas aren't being discussed."

VICE MAYOR Dennis Husch said that he understands why there weren't any initial bids, but has said that he will continue to push for a new operator. He said that he has not ruled out the possibility of spending public money for a new site.

"I want to see if I can figure out a way to recast [the request] and make it more enticing for the companies that hire legal day work forces," Husch said. "If it takes spending money, I see that as a last resort … and we still want to have all our options on the table."

Financial assistance for the site may be found elsewhere than the town's coffers, said council member Dave Kirby. He said that he was interested in seeing if Fairfax County would transfer their current contract with Reston Interfaith to a new organization.

While it may be considered based on what Herndon decides to do, that prospect is by no means guaranteed, according to Merni Fitzgerald, Fairfax County Public Affairs director.

That money, she said, is part of a comprehensive strategy to mitigate public nuisance from workers gathering on the street. Any new applicant for the contract would need to adhere to that strategy in an effective manner, Fitzgerald added.

Herndon council member Harlon Reece, the only remaining official on the council who supported the initial establishment of the site, has said that this path of getting a new operator at all costs is a dangerous one.

"I just remember how it used to be with the crowds in the parking lots, and it's a lot better now," Reece said. "There's this perception from some of the folks that if they shut down the site, they're just going to pack up and leave."

"Well, a lot of these folks have families … I just don't see that happening."