Friday, May 6, 2005
New wastewater bids lower — but not much
New bids for the school wastewater treatment system opened on Tuesday afternoon were lower than last year's bids, but not as low as hoped for, due to rising construction costs. The new low bid of $2,038,431 was $162,000 less than the $2.2 million low bid opened last fall. School Building Committee Chair Christy Barbee said while the school had hoped for a lower price, it is good that bids are not higher, given the increased costs of construction materials. Seven contractors submitted bids for the job with the highest one for $2.4 million.
The project went out for re-bid this spring after the lowest construction bid received last fall was for $2.2 million, an amount much higher than expected by school and town officials. The committee, aware that costs have continued to rise in the six months since bids were opened last year, hoped that construction increases would be offset by money saved in moving the treatment building to the Banta-Davis Land off Bedford Road.
Banta-Davis site saved $$
The previous location for the building, on the wooded hill between the school gym and Spalding Field, had an expensive access road adding to the cost of the project. By relocating the building to eliminate the access road, $162,000 was removed from the project costs, though the building committee had hoped to reduce costs by more. The access road for the previous site was bid at $225,000 according to the lowest bid received last year.
Though voters in the fall of 2003 approved funds for the system, the project was held up by delays waiting for a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection and for final engineering design work. After the high bids were received last year, the entire project was reviewed and the wastewater treatment building was relocated to the Banta-Davis Land off Bedford Road to save road construction costs.
The previous building site required costly site work to reduce the steep road grade. Though high bids forced the school to consider alternate sites for the treatment building, the final location off the driveway at the Banta-Davis Land is a more straightforward design. "The amount of road work to access the previous site would have been tremendous," said Planning Board member Louise Hara. It would have required a lot of grading on the hillside and was very costly.
Earlier bid was $2.2 million
When school officials opened bids for the wastewater plant last November, the low bid was $2.2 million. Engineer Paul Clinghan of Hoyle, Tanner and Associates of Manchester, New Hampshire, who designed the system, had given the committee an estimate of $1.5 million for the project in 2003, a figure based on a system built that was similar in size. $1,279,000 was approved by voters at a Special Town Meeting in the fall of 2003, with $233,000 remaining from the Link Building project making up the remainder. "The estimates given in 2003 were low in all areas," said Moore.
Steep increases in the price of many construction materials, including steel, were a major factor in the higher bids that came in, along with the high cost of the access road for the previous hillside building.
At the time of the fall 2003 Special Town Meeting, the building committee expected to award the contract and start construction in 2004. The school filed an application for a groundwater discharge permit from the state DEP in October 2003 which was finally approved in June 2004. After DEP approval, the system could be built. Engineering design work by HTA was completed last October and the project was finally put out to bid for contractors on November 1st.
Besides the $2,038,000 bid, a 10% contingency fee of about $200,000 is expected to be set aside for unforeseen expenses, such as encountering excessive ledge during excavations.
Engineering and miscellaneous project management-related costs are expected to add another $400,000 to the project. An on-site engineer to oversee the general contractor on a day-to-day basis will cost about $200,000 over the duration of the construction project which will probably take 12 months to complete. A new law also went into effect last year requiring school construction projects costing over $1.5 million to hire an independent project manager. Last year the building committee hired Mark Thomson of SEA Consultants in Cambridge as its advisor and consultant on the project.
The town previously approved $1,279,000 for the project in 2003, an amount that will be deducted from the new town meeting request, along with $185,000 remaining from funds set aside for the septic system from the 1997 Link Building project. If the new project costs pass by a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting on May 23, the funds must also be approved by a simple majority on the ballot in June.
Annual maintenance costs for the system are estimated to be about $50,000 a year, an amount that will be added to the school's operating budget. An outside company will likely take over the necessary maintenance required for the plant which includes testing every few days by a licensed operator.
Reimbursement from the state
Since taking office, Governor Romney's administration is overhauling the school building assistance agency to improve its efficiency and cut back on unnecessary state spending. The bureau that used to be part of the state Department of Education is part of the state treasurer's office now and is called the Massachusetts School Building Authority (SBC).
Previously, the former School Building Assistance Bureau agreed to a 60% reimbursement for the wastewater project, a rate tied to the Link Building project in 1997. The SBA allotted state reimbursement for a new septic field for the building project at that time. In a letter to the school in September 2003, SBA administrator Christine Lynch confirmed the reimbursement, but said the project must start by the summer of 2004. Though that date has come and gone, the building committee has documented the permitting and engineering design delays, and the set-back caused by high bids and rebidding of the project.
With reorganization at the agency there have been several different contacts but Barbee said, "We have not had any indication that they would go back on their word." School Business Manager Steve Moore also believes that reimbursement from the state is still intact. "We're doing everything we can to get money from the state, but whether or not we get money, we have to build it. There's nothing to lead us to believe that we are not still eligible."
An audit of the 1997 school project is now ongoing with the Merrimac Education Center of Chelmsford, an independent consulting firm hired by the building committee to review the project. The audit, required by the School Building Authority, is usually done within a year after a project is complete; however it was held up because the septic system was not finished. "This project is old and complicated," says Moore of the building committee's decision to hire the outside firm. The school is preparing the audit for review by Merrimac. The company will verify that the school audit is complete and accurate and ensure that the school gets the maximum reimbursement.
Exactly when reimbursement for the wastewater project will occur is unknown, particularly while the School Building Authority is under extensive restructuring. Currently the school receives $137,000 a year from the state as reimbursement for the 1997 building project. The annual payment from the agency will likely be adjusted upward once the wastewater project is finally complete, says Moore.
If the project is approved at both Town Meeting and on the ballot, the current construction start date is July 1. The project is expected to take close to 12 months, with a $1,500 a day penalty for the contractor if he exceeds the time constraint. The proposed building at the Banta-Davis is on the right side of the road across from the existing baseball field, with the leaching field for the system on the left side of the road next to the baseball field.
The construction bid specifies that trenching on Spalding field must be completed by September 1st, so it does not conflict with the fall sports season. However, the date is negotiable by the contractor if he notifies the school that they will need more time by a specified date.
Barbee says that the building committee is sensitive to the needs of the Recreation Commission for playing fields, especially in the busy spring and fall seasons. They are working with recreation on an ongoing basis, she says, to inform them of all tentative dates for the project. When the group tried to relocate the building to save money, they decided not to disrupt any existing Recreation Commission facilities, such as the tennis courts on Church Street.
Though the Recreation Commission acknowledges they did not welcome the wastewater building's new location at Banta-Davis near town recreation fields, they are pleased with the school's efforts to mitigate any construction impact. "Marie Doyle, Steve Moore and the building committee have bent over backwards to accommodate the sports schedule," says Recreation Chair Maureen Tarca. "There is a lot of conservation land in town but there is not much municipal land. We have to respond to a continued demand for playing fields by both children and adult teams. There is property in town, but we can't use it. There's no place else to go."
Alternate technology not feasible
In April, developer Michael Kenny put a half-page ad in the Mosquito asking why town officials had not responded to his offer for an alternative wastewater treatment system. Along with home-building, Kenny is a principal of North Coast Technologies which has installed several wastewater treatment systems to accompany large residential developments around the state.
While the technology may be promising in the future, it is not proven with schools, says the school's outside project manager Marc Thomson, who oversees the project with SEA Consultants. Though the technology Kenny is suggesting may be proven in private settings, it has not been tried in public projects, he said. "Schools are a unique system compared with a normal residential development," he explained. "There is a lot of flow during the week, but not on weekends and during the summer. The system needs a steady flow of wastewater to keep the biological treatment system working. The Rotary Biological Contact system is proven to handle the fluctuations in flow better than most technologies."
Though the building committee has discussed the alternative technology before, says Barbee, who contacted Kenny in response to the advertisement. "The RBC technology is tried-and-true for schools. It's good risk management to stay with a technology that is known to work." To change systems after investing extensive engineering time and fees to design the system, and after months spent preparing the permit application and receiving approval of the system by the DEP would be "really irresponsible" of the committee, she said.
While Kenny's system may later prove to be an economical and effective alternative system, the potential for cost savings do not offset the time and expense the school has already invested in the RBC project, agrees Thomson. "It is just not feasible for the school."
A ten-year project
In the nearly ten years since the school septic field failed state Title 5 regulations the road has been full of twists and turns. From an abutter's lawsuit, to the need for a wastewater plant rather than a septic field, to a lengthy engineering and permitting process, and finally to high construction bids, the road has been anything but smooth.
The building committee charged with completing the project has had countless meetings over the years with engineers, town boards, and the state School Building Assistance Bureau. The vetting process for the wastewater project has proven a gargantuan task at times. Though the building itself is relatively small, about 40 x 40 square feet in size, the greatest challenge for the group has been to find a place to put it on the school campus or town land where it has the least impact on abutters, natural areas, and recreation fields and facilities.
In 1996 a septic system inspection was required for the Link Building project. The system was found in technical failure at that time because the distance between the high water mark and the bottom of the school leaching field located under Spalding field was less than five feet . The old septic system under Spalding field is pumped every 6-8 weeks at a cost of $1,000 each time, says school Buildings and Grounds Supervisor, David Flannery.
The replacement septic system that was to be sited on the Banta-Davis land was challenged by a Bedford Road abutter in a law suit in the late 1990s. The Rivers Protection Act was cited in the suit because Pages Brook, a year round stream located on Church Street, must be crossed by the sewage pipe running from the school down to the Banta-Davis land. The suit, along with a glitch in the town's initial filing with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), delayed construction plans for several years as town officials and lawyers tried to determine if there was an alternate site for the septic field.
Engineers then advised the building committee that the school needs a wastewater treatment system rather than a septic system due to increased enrollments, which have increased flow rates at the school. The building committee later learned that wastewater treatment plants are exempt from the Rivers Protection Act regulations. While the wastewater system required is more costly than the septic system originally planned, its exemption from the Rivers Protection Act allowed plans to proceed.
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