Engineers Miss the Mark on Lagoon Cost Estimate

            If the Sewer ratepayers of Marion were unhappy about having to pay for a $2.5 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade by December 1, they will be even unhappier when they hear the actual price is going to be nearly double.

            The Marion Board of Selectmen on February 5 was waist-deep in wastewater woe as it struggled to understand how the Town’s engineering firm CDM Smith could have gotten the cost estimate for the project so very wrong.

            Town Administrator Paul Dawson broke the news publically when he reported on the two bids the Town received for the request for proposal to line wastewater lagoon 1 with associated upgrades. The lowest bid came in at $4,668,000 “clearly well exceeding our budget estimates and our appropriation.”

            Town Meeting voters in May of last year approved spending $2.5 million on the project, the cost estimate provided by CDM Smith.

            “Obviously this has to go back to Town Meeting,” Dawson said. “We have compliance issues here that we’re currently required to complete,” which is mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

            Work was slated to begin early April and be completed by the December 1 deadline.

            “Obviously this throws a monkey wrench into that,” said Dawson. “We’ll need to try to figure out how to go to the regulators and adjust that schedule accordingly. However we cut this, obviously we need more time.”

            The only good news here is that the company with the winning bid has agreed to hold that $4.668 estimate long enough for Town Meeting to approve the amount.

            Selectman John Waterman turned to CDM Smith representatives Bill McConnell and Matthew Pitta in the hot seats and said, “This put us in a tough spot because we have to go back to the voters for something we were told was going to cost $2.5 million. … That’s a huge miss. How do we explain to the voters how we could be that wrong?”

            For Selectman Randy Parker, the problem is that CDM Smith and the selectmen had been using that $2.5 million figure all along, “Along with the other numbers that you have provided,” he said. “And then this thing comes tumbling down. … You’re professionals! You didn’t start this yesterday.”

            According to Pitta, several items will cost more than the engineering firm expected, including the actual liner for the lagoon and a layer of sand that needs to be thicker than anticipated. In one example, CDM estimated the removal of the sludge to cost $250,000 – the actual cost turned out to be $900,000.

            Putting the project back out to bid isn’t an option because, as Dawson explained, it would be too risky. The next lowest bid to come back might wind up even higher than this one. And if the Town doesn’t go with this bid, it would face penalties of $52,000 imposed by the federal government, adding up to $1.5 million a month until the project is done.

            So, as Dawson put it, “It’s back to the drawing board [to] reconfigure how to apportion this in a way that isn’t going to cripple the ratepayers.”

            Resident and Assessor George “T.J.” Walker had more than once criticized CDM that night, earlier when he questioned why the Town uses the same engineering firm for the majority of its projects, and then later because of the cost estimate catastrophe.

            “This is a colossal failure on behalf of our consultants and professionals,” said Walker. “It puts the Board of Selectmen in an awkward position.” He later added, “This is the only consultant that I am aware of for the Town, and if they make a mistake then they get paid to fix it. There’s no accountability.”

            Walker said the selectmen should take a good look at that relationship, continuing, “We’re in a real problem. The taxpayers and the ratepayers – there’s no way they can pick up another $2 mill. I mean, their sewer bills are gonna be higher than their tax bills.”

            After some time discussing the matter, Dawson suggested the EPA might extend the deadline due to the circumstances, but the Town will still be liable for the project. The Town will also be revisiting the cost estimates CDM provided for other capital projects in town.

            CDM’s credibility certainly has been hurt, commented Waterman. “Burned once, we’re going to have less confidence next time.”

            “I think we’re all disappointed with the results,” said Parker.

            “We are too,” said McConnell.

            Earlier in the meeting the board discussed pursuing a $500,000wastewater infrastructure 20-year plan, something that Waterman and Parker both supported, but Hills did not, evidenced by the ensuing 2-1 vote to approve developing an RFP to put out to bid. Hills said, as the Town works on the sewer projects it needs to accomplish now, devising a plan to address matters that are still unclear would be “spinning our wheels.”

            And as for approaching Town Meeting for the funding – for that, Dawson commented, “This is going to be a horrendous year.”

            “We ought to give it a try,” said Parker.

            What’s most important is that the public gets familiar with the concept. “Maybe it takes two tries to get approval for funding for this,” Waterman said. “Start to educate the voters on what this is about and why it’s important.”

            In other matters, Marion resident Robert Partridge had been acting as a volunteer consultant of sorts helping the Town sort through its solid waste collection conundrum. After some research, Partridge presented the board with some options and corresponding price tags for curbside trash collection in light of an unfortunate year of repeated truck breakdowns resulting is trash collection delays and costly repairs to keep the aging truck operating.

            The board could either seek funding from Town Meeting to purchase one or two new trucks that are either low-tech (rear-loading that requires a worker manually move the trash), or more high-tech (top-loading and automatic) truck, or outsource its curbside trash collection to a vendor.

            Marion is only one of four area towns left that still collect their own trash.

            A new low-tech truck would cost about $250,000 to purchase, with an additional $20,000-$25,000 a year in maintenance costs plus employee compensation, Partridge said, while a high-tech truck would cost about $450,000, but would only require one worker to operate. But what’s more, the town would likely need two trucks.

            Selectmen were surprised to hear that last February the Department of Public Works had sought an informal estimate from a trash collector company that showed a cost that was lower than the Town’s current operating cost.

            Partridge suggested the selectmen compile an RFP for outsourcing the collection so they can compare the information, “but it’s going to become a costly matter for the town, one way or the other,” he said.

            Either way, Waterman suggested, Marion voters must understand that the Town has to do something.

            “If we don’t do either of those, we’re gonna be out of the business because the trucks we have aren’t running,” said Waterman.

            The board also met with members of the Finance Committee, Chairman Peter Winters and Alan Minard, because the board wanted an explanation as to why the FinCom is delaying approval for a $7,412 Reserve Fund transfer request to fund the 5.4 percent salary increase for Dawson.

            But when Minard and Winters left the table after digging in their heels, the selectmen still did not have their transfer request fulfilled.

            Minard did all the talking, starting by saying that the Reserve Fund was created for “emergencies,” for example, the interim DPW superintendent’s request for $18,000 for a frontend loader bucket, or other unforeseen expenses that call for more money than the original budget could accommodate.

            The FinCom did approve the Reserve Fund transfer for the 8.8 percent pay raise for the fire chief, but Minard said the budget the committee and Town Meeting approved had no indication of a 5.4 percent salary increase – a raise that Minard said was given without first checking to see if there was money to fund it.

            “And frankly,” Minard told the board, “I don’t think this is a very transparent way to conduct business.”

            According to Minard, there is enough money in the budget to continue to pay Dawson at the increased pay rate through his retirement mid-March, with a remaining budget balance of $25,000 until the end of the fiscal year June 30.

            “At this point we don’t see any reason to tie up $7,412,” said Minard, because once it is transferred, it cannot be used to fund another department’s emergency request.

            “We don’t think that that is a very efficient way of handling town finances,” Minard said, equating a Reserve Fund transfer like the one for Dawson’s raise to “burying money in the backyard.”

            Hills pressed Minard, saying the Reserve Fund is also to pay for potential pay raises, and, besides, the committee had already approved the transfer request for the fire chief salary.

            “Is there a reason that we need to add $7,000 to a salary line item when you’re going to have $25,000 left over?” Minard asked. “Why would we add $7,000 to make it $32,000?”

            “We have a valid expense we have to pay,” said Hills.

            Waterman said he understood the committee’s past practice was to approve these transfer requests when they are requested.

            “I had the impression here that it was done more to prove a point because a salary increase was approved [without informing the Finance Committee],” said Waterman.

            Dawson noticed his name had been “bantered about” a lot that night, “And it’s not really about me, it’s about the town administrator salary line item,” said Dawson, reminding everyone that the Town was currently soliciting a new town administrator and all this bad press about not funding the salary doesn’t help attract qualified candidates.

            “Nobody is going to apply for a position that doesn’t appear to be funded,” said Dawson. “The fact of the matter is, the position still needs to be funded and this action is going to have to be taken, why not do it now?”

            The amount that was approved was $123,689, Winters stated. “If Mr. Dawson is leaving at the end of March then there won’t be a deficit.” So, if and when the time comes, he said, the FinCom will fund it.

            After a bit more futile back and forth, Hills said, “Okay,” and thanked the two gentlemen.

            Also during the meeting, the board appointed Police Chief John Garcia’s pick for the Marion PD’s next sergeant, Officer Derryl Lawrence. Sergeant Lawrence was first appointed as a special officer in Marion in March 2012 and was appointed as a full-time officer in February 2013.

            The board will be holding a 10:00 am meeting on February 8 to interview the final two candidates for the treasurer position, but the next regularly scheduled meeting of the Marion Board of Selectmen will be February 19 at 7:00 pm at the Marion Town House.

Marion Board of Selectmen

By Jean Perry

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