The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 10, 2004


School questions $2.2 million wastewater plant bids

Before Town Meeting on December 6, town officials met with the School Building Committee (SBC) and HTA Engineers in the Corey dining room hoping to hear answers to the question on everyone's mind, "Why were bids so much higher than estimated?"

On November 30 the town learned that the lowest bid on the Carlisle School wastewater treatment system was $2.2 million, significantly above the expected $1.6 million.

Many of the reasons presented pointed to the conclusion that in trying to satisfy the school, abutters, the Conservation Commission, the Recreation Commission, the Fire Department., and others, a design was put forward laden with extra costs. According to Carlisle School Business Manager Steve Moore, "What you're seeing is the cumulative affect of trying to make everyone happy."

"One of the toughest things we do is estimate future cost," said Paul Clinghan of HTA, engineers on the project. He noted a similar project in Dennis-Yarmouth had received bids of $1.2 million for construction. The project included a 17,000-gallon tank (versus Carlisle's 13,500) and a 2,184-square-foot building (versus Carlisle's 1,850). Taking that project as a comparable, and adding in amounts for items such as Carlisle's longer access road and force main, HTA had considered $1.6 million a reasonable estimate.

Clinghan detailed a number of areas where costs in the lowest bid were above HTA estimates. Site prep was $62,408 above estimate, the access road was $87,770 above, and treatment equipment was $42,600 higher. Given rising prices for steel, oil, plastic and transport, Clinghan said, "I can understand that." He continued, "The one that's really throwing us is the building," which had been estimated to cost $470,000 and came in at $882,034, an amount that could not be explained by rising materials costs.

Clinghan pointed to a letter he had written to school Business Manager Steve Moore in which he noted that the building price is "where most of the contractors put the costs that were not accounted for in other items [profit, overhead, general conditions, etc.]" He theorized that the building cost might hide a substantial cushion for possible overruns on the project. To find out more, he had gone back and asked bidders.

Bidders point to uncertainties

Bidders generally felt "this is not an easy project." The plant location (on the slope to the right of Spalding Field) was "the number one item increasing costs." A key concern was the requirement that trucks and equipment could not cross Spalding Field during baseball season. This meant that the access road to the plant from the school parking lot had to be complete before spring or the project would be delayed. A 10% grade limitation on the access road, requested by the Fire Department, increased material costs to make the road 200 feet longer. (At a meeting in May 2004 the Selectmen were warned the grade limitation could add $120,000.) The distance of utility connections to the school was also a factor.

Other concerns were possible added costs related to ConsCom requirements, with one contractor "concerned about the brook crossing [a septic pipe crosses a stream] and dealing with ConsCom if the crossing did not work out perfectly." The requirement to dewater (remove silt) before water could be pumped into wetlands was noted. One contractor had heard of past litigation and, according to Clinghan, padded his bid for working in Carlisle. The need for safety in an active school and recreation area was also a concern.

The ten-month time frame was also considered difficult as construction would take place during the winter and weather delays were very possible. Contract penalties for late completion are $1,000 per day.

Other factors included minimal storage and the need for minority business subs, raising the price of subcontracting.

What to do

"If we want to take big money out of this project, we have to move the plant," said Clinghan. He pointed to several locations that had previously been considered, but rejected. For example, locating the plant behind the Corey Building could save over $400,000, but might require drilling a new well for the school and would carry a high risk of ledge. Other locations on Church Street, Spalding Field, or Banta-Davis would require moving recreational facilities such as ball fields, tennis courts, or the Tot Lot, and would have greater impact on abutters. Just moving the access road so it comes off Church Street could reduce costs by $280,000 but would mean loss of the Tot Lot ($75,000 to replace) or tennis courts ($200,000 to replace). Moore noted, "These sites have been examined already. The [recommended] site was picked for a reason."

Another strategy would be to break the project into two bid packages, one for the building, and one for the site work, each about half the total cost. Clinghan noted this could "bring in a new category of bidders — smaller, local, and cheaper," that can't provide the building and equipment but could be competitive on the site work. It would also eliminate the possibility of hiding site-work contingencies in the building cost. By rebidding the site work and easing some site restrictions, Clinghan expects $100,000 could be saved.

Reimbursement not threatened

Moore reported that discussions with the state regarding the promised 60% reimbursement indicated there would be no penalty for extending the project to attempt to reduce costs. "It wasn't difficult to convince them. It was almost their suggestion."

The Selectmen agreed to honor the request of the Building Committee not to move Article 3 at the Special Town Meeting later that night.

Over the next weeks the building committee will be interviewing project managers to help sort out the issues. "We're pretty excited about it," says Moore, noting it will be very useful to have someone overseeing the project who has experience with wastewater systems. He observes that delaying the project six months, possibly until the Spring Town Meeting, is not a total negative, as starting in summer will avoid the playing field and winter weather issues. And even if costs can't be significantly reduced, he says, "I think we'll get greater support at Town Meeting for having done the due diligence."

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito