Tisbury Leaders Threaten to Cut Wastewater Engineers on Costs

By JONATHAN BURKE

Tisbury selectmen, faced with an unexpected near doubling in fees from their wastewater engineers, this week bluntly threatened to drop the Earth Tech firm and seek another.

Earth Tech originally had a $362,666 contract with Tisbury to design and supervise construction of the town's new wastewater system. In August, the engineers had requested an additional $173,000 for their services. But in a Nov. 7 letter that town officials said took them by surprise, Earth Tech bumped that increase to $323,721.

Ray LaPorte, chairman of the selectmen, told Earth Tech representatives at the end of Tuesday's meeting that they should make their firm's final offer by week's end, "so we can get you aboard this train or leave you on the platform and go with firm B."

Just last week, the town received permits from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). As town counsel pointed out, the pay hike request threatened to stop the wastewater project entirely.

"We're ready to issue a notice to proceed. We have to get going," said John Giorgio, town counsel on the matter. "Why weren't we presented with a cost change a long time ago?" he asked.

The engineers linked the requested pay hike to the increased cost of the municipal project. Cost of the project was first estimated at $3 million, but bids came in at more than $6 million.

"We believe that the construction value has identified the scope of the project," said Peter Silbermann, an Earth Tech vice president. "It's Earth Tech's position that there has been a material change in the scope of the work."

That was a hard one for the selectmen to stomach. The selectmen countered that the engineers knew the actual construction costs in August when they made their request for an extra $173,000.

In addition to arguing that the value of the construction work warranted a pay increase, Mr. Silbermann and his colleague, Richard Jubinville, said that the project schedule had been drawn out, the project had gone from one contract to two and 600 additional hours would be needed for contract supervision.

But for the selectmen, the request was too big and the engineers' reasoning vague and unsupportable.

"I'd like you to explain how the change is significant enough [to justify almost doubling the original price]," said Mr. LaPorte.

The engineers pointed to the treatment plant as an example. It has changed from its original design and is more complex.

"Clarify complexity," said Tristan Israel, selectmen.

"The treatment plant is larger in scale. It has a garage that was not originally anticipated," was one of Mr. Silbermann's responses.

"It's still collecting wastewater. That has not changed," said Mr. LaPorte.

Mr. LaPorte pressed his argument that changes in construction costs don't mean changes in the work the engineers must do. "The fact that competitive environment and bidding has changed - should that be a burden for the town?" he asked.

"It's still an 18-month job. It's still four walls and a roof," concluded Mr. LaPorte.

The engineers said that they have had problems with the treatment plant contractor, Process Construction Management, in the past and that they expect to spend more time supervising the treatment plant construction. According to Mr. Luttrell, they requested an additional $75,000 for supervision time.

"The fact that you folks might have had an experience that is not favorable has not been demonstrated to us," said Mr. LaPorte.

Tom Pachico, selectman and the Tisbury board of health agent, told the Earth Tech representatives: "A lot of this to me is just baloney.

"You guys designed the treatment plant," he said. "I'm not real happy with [your request]. Nothing has changed the scope of this project.

"Live up to your word or as far as I'm concerned do not bother bidding in this town," added Mr. Pachico.

The engineers pointed to the Main street project as another factor increasing the complexity of their task. They said there will be more going on than was originally planned. But the selectmen were not persuaded.

"People who do not even live in Vineyard Haven know about the Main street project," said Mr. Israel. He said that part of the reason Earth Tech was hired was because they were knowledgeable about the town.

Town officials are eager to begin the wastewater project. Mr. Luttrell said a loss of town paperwork at DEP has already delayed the beginning of construction.

With approval finally in hand, he said that he wants to hold a preconstruction conference as soon as possible.

"My hope would have been a long time ago, but I realistically will try to get a preconference meeting on Friday or Monday," said Mr. Luttrell this week. He said construction cannot start soon enough for him.