After Vow to Cap Spending, Hartford Increases Pocket Park Budget

  • Following a Hartford Selectboard meeting discussing proposed pocket parks adjacent to the Quechee Covered Bridge, Selectboard Member Mike Morris, left, talks with West Hartford resident Jim Dow in Quechee, Vt., on April 5, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2017

Quechee — Ten months after vowing to cap the costs of a stabilization and beautification project on the banks of the Ottauquechee River, the Hartford Selectboard has authorized a $65,000 increase to meet the asking price of the lowest bidder.

The additional money will come from a grant facilitated by the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission, and will not impact Hartford’s taxpayers.

But in June 2016, Selectboard members said they were setting the cap not only to protect local taxpayers — they also wanted to hold an engineering firm accountable for a $350,000 estimate to build a small multi-level pocket park on the site of a property that was ravaged by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“I want to start holding engineering companies accountable when they quote us a number,” Selectman Mike Morris said during the 2016 meeting. A little later in that discussion, he added, “It’s all tax money. Regardless of where the funds come from, it’s to control the price of the project. I want to control the price of the project.”

The Selectboard unanimously approved a resolution capping the total cost of the project at $350,000 in June 2016.

“It’s great that the board is setting a spending cap,” Selectboard member Simon Dennis said at the time. “We should think back to this moment in future capital plans.”

But last week, the Selectboard voted unanimously to set a new maximum budget of $415,000.

Town officials say the bids simply did not come in at the desired price point, which left the town with no reasonable alternative to seeking the additional funds from the Selectboard.

“If you start to take too many other cuts, you’ll wind up compromising the project,” Town Manager Leo Pullar told the Selectboard last week, according to CATV video of the meeting.

Rethinking the project parameters in a way that would have allowed it to come in under the price cap likely would have resulted in a delay to the construction, which would have both subjected the project costs to inflationary increases, and also would have jeopardized a portion of $98,000 in grant funds that currently can go toward the project costs but are set to expire this summer.

The first sign that the project might cost more than anticipated was in February, when Holden Engineering, the company that generated the $350,000 estimate last year, created a new bid estimate that would have pushed the project costs to $470,000. At the time, Pullar and town staff worked with the firm to do value engineering — changing the project parameters in a way that would bring down costs without making big sacrifices in quality.

To that end, the project specifications were altered by combining two sets of stairs into one, foregoing an irrigation system, using shorter, prefabricated concrete retaining walls, and maintaining, rather than replacing, the existing sidewalk and curbing, among other changes.

Pullar has declined to release the new project specifications until a contract is signed with the low bidder, Willey Construction, which he said he expects to happen shortly. Construction work for the 10 to 12 week project is slated to begin within the next several weeks.

Though the Selectboard set the cap at $350,000, staff at the time asked for $378,000. Then-interim Town Manager Pat MacQueen pointed out that Morris’ motion did not include $29,000 in contingency costs that were being sought.

“I want to make sure the board is aware of it,” he said.

“The reason it doesn’t,” Morris said, “is because ... Holden Engineers, they explained they had gone above the normal process of just getting an engineer’s pricing, that they had done the pricing of materials and it was a pretty accurate number.”

Holden Engineering did not respond to a phone call seeking comment on Thursday.

At the time, Lori Hirshfield, director of the Planning and Development Department, characterized the number at the time as “an engineer’s estimate. We don’t truly know the cost until it goes out to bid.”

On Thursday, Pullar said he felt the final number was not out of line with the original estimate.

“As time goes on, costs increase,” Pullar said, citing an industry average of 8 to 10 percent annual inflationary increases during the current period of economic recovery. “If we had gotten that out for bid, $350,000 probably would have been in the ballpark.”

Morris expressed frustration with the process on Thursday, and said he felt like he had no choice but to back away from the $350,000 cap.

“The last thing we want to do is squash this project and see what’s invested go to waste,” he said. “My main goal was that it doesn’t cost the taxpayer more money.”

Morris said that, moving forward, he’d like to try to prevent future cost overruns, and suggested that forming a citizen’s committee, such as was done to renovate the Town Hall a few years ago, to manage the planning process might help.

“I want to establish that we want to be more careful about going about projects so this doesn’t happen all the time,” Morris said.

Pullar said citizen committees on construction projects are a mixed bag — for large, complicated projects in which many alternatives are possible, he said, they make sense. But for straightforward, smaller projects, the time it takes to form a committee and let it run its course can wind up creating unnecessary delays.

F.X. Flinn, a former Selectboard member who lives in Quechee, said the real pricing problem came in 2013, when political wrangling within the board and with a former town manager prevented the project from being built in 2014.

“The reason it didn’t happen then was that Hartford was suffering from a breakdown of good governance and the fact that it’s going ahead this year is evidence that that breakdown has been corrected and that the town of Hartford has good management and good leadership in place. I applaud that,” he said.

The current Selectboard, he said, made the right decision by not allowing the 2016 resolution to stand.

“You don’t let yourself be hamstrung by something that looked good a year ago,” he said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.