Town Diversifying Engineering Work

            Marion Town Administrator Jay McGrail and Department of Public Works Director Dave Willett updated the Marion Finance Committee on January 20 with the latest on the wastewater treatment plant lagoon lining project.

            According to town representatives, engineering firm CDM Smith originally estimated that 350 dry tons of sludge needed to be removed, but that number turned out to be over 1,000 tons. In addition to several hundred tons of sludge that are believed to still be in the lagoon, 6 inches of sub-base also needs to be removed. The cost of removal could appear in an article in the warrant for Spring Town Meeting.

            FinCom member Shea Assad asked, based on $280 per-ton, if Marion has any recourse with the engineer. McGrail said that the town had put the engineer, CDM Smith, on notice legally, including the advisory of a potential lawsuit as Marion looks to recover any costs associated with engineering mistakes.

            “The big unknown is, we don’t know where we can take the sludge yet,” said Willett, noting that while the town hopes to come to some agreement quickly, “There’s a lot of landfills that originally would take it that now won’t. Because of COVID, the waste products are down, and we’ve been banned.”

            A trucking company took an enormous amount of Marion’s waste to Canada to dispose of it. The town hopes to avoid more of that steep expense.

            If Marion were to re-bid the civil part (i.e., the final end) of the project, McGrail said the upside is the project would not require Town Meeting approval without knowing the exact cost. Another scenario is if Willett can fine-tune a change order that can go to a Town Meeting vote.

            FinCom Chairman Peter Winters asked if added costs could reach $2 million. Willett said a change order would be for $1.2 million, and removal of the rest of the sludge could cost between $500,000 and $700,000.

            “The natural tendency would be to go up. If we can find a landfill closer, we could negotiate a price,” said Willett. “It’s a tremendous amount of work just to get this (project) back in gear. The goal is to do it by the end of February…” Presumably, the town would then have a hard figure for an article in the Spring Town Meeting Warrant. McGrail suggested a placeholder for the amount in the warrant.

            McGrail said the original cost estimate for the entire project resulted in at least $2 million off the mark. “We went back to Town Meeting for additional money, and they missed the mark for the sludge (removal),” he said, explaining that the total miscalculations could reach $6 million. “Over the last two and a half years, we’re trying to finish this contract. We haven’t awarded them any new work for two years now.”

            McGrail summarized that the original cost estimation for sludge removal was around $3 million and could now reach $10 million.

            Selectman John Waterman characterized the relationship as having given CDM Smith the business “no questions asked, paid whatever they asked.” Now an effort is underway to diversify Marion’s engineering projects. “I would say they’re gradually on the out unless something changes,” said Waterman. “It’s tough for these guys. They’re going to give us their time for free to fix this problem.”

            Assistant Town Administrator Judy Mooney said that CDM Smith’s involvement in Marion projects predated her employment and was part of the wastewater treatment plant that goes back 20 years. Waterman corroborated that CDM Smith has done all engineering work related to the wastewater treatment plant for the last 20 years.

            “It seems to me like there ought to be some accountability,” said Assad, who recommended the Board of Selectmen consider putting all jobs up for competitive bid. “One guy hanging around for 20 years doing everything, that nonsense has got to stop.”

            Waterman said it’s harder to accomplish with engineering work. “You kind of end up with one firm that is the go-to person on wastewater,” he said.

            This year Marion has conducted interviews for engineering bidders as public meetings held at the police station to improve such exposure. “Things are going pretty well with a variety of engineers specializing in a number of areas. I’m not pigeon-holed into using one consultant,” said Willett.

            McGrail had hoped to be in a position to present a fully loaded FY22 budget but told FinCom he could not provide necessary context without a budget number from the Old Rochester Regional School District. McGrail gave Recreation and Marine department budgets for FinCom’s initial review. “Ultimately, you need to be able to see the whole budget to uniquely break them all down,” he said. “We’re just an ORR budget away from having the whole budget.” The idea, said McGrail, is to hopefully figure out how to balance the budget with last-minute adjustments.

            Winters said that the Finance Committee should be involved with the Board of Selectmen in meetings over budgets, “But we don’t want to duplicate efforts, that’s all.”

            In borrowing a professional wrestling analogy, Assad said that he and Winters would like to “tag-team” with FinCom members Charlie Larkin and Karen Kevelson, with Winters on ORR and Assad on Sippican School. “Such a big part of the budget, and given where our revenue streams are, it could dramatically impact the town, he said.

            “I welcome the additional recourse. I think it’s a great suggestion,” said Larkin.

            “I’m a big believer in two eggs are better than one,” said Assad.

            When a whole budget is available, McGrail said he would simultaneously send it in PDF format to FinCom and the selectmen with a plan to make comprehensive presentations on February 2 to the Board of Selectmen and on February 3 to FinCom. It is hoped for one joint meeting with the school districts and the selectmen in late February or early March.

            McGrail reported on a “hard decision” to furlough some staff at the Senior Center and Recreation Department.

            In summarizing his FY22 budget, Recreation Director Jody Dickerson told FinCom that increases would be determined by minimum wage affecting most seasonal employees. The rest, he said, is level-funded, the same as FY21.

            Harbormaster Isaac Perry also reported, saying his FY22 budget is “pretty much unchanged” but for line-item increases with two full-time employees coming out of contracts and going into the town’s employee policy. Total wages and increases result in $6,000 added for FY22.

            McGrail said the DPW is looking to replace a high-end mechanic with one more specifically for preventative maintenance, including oil changes and tires with the philosophy of farming out more substantial repairs. While the selectmen requested an overview of town vehicles with a justification or replacement schedule, McGrail said quite a few vehicles are gone, and it’s a much smaller list this year.

            Winters asked about the boat engine replacement that Town Meeting approved. Perry said the motor would not become available until at least March. The boat is out of service over the winter, so it is not a problem operations-wise, but it will be a problem if the situation remains ongoing come spring.

            The next meeting of the Marion Finance Committee is scheduled for February 3 at 7:00 pm.

Marion Finance Committee

By Mick Colageo

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