Belmont Board of Selectman Chair Andy Rojas was not happy.
At a joint meeting Wednesday morning, Sept. 3, of the Selectmen and the Underwood Pool Building Committee – the citizens group organized last year to manage the design and development of a $5.2 million pool complex to replace the historic 102-year-old Underwood Pool – Rojas and his colleagues heard that due to the dubious last-minute withdrawal of the construction firm which submitted a below budget bid and other auxiliary issues, the budget for the voter-approved two-pool facility is currently $400,000 short of the new “low” bid.
“We weren’t expecting this,” said Adam Dash, vice chair of the Building Committee. “We had a bidder who meets our estimates and you think you’re done. Then the guy backs out.”
Because of the failure to secure a bid within the building committee’s $4.16 million construction budget and since the second round of bidding will occur, at the earliest, early in the New Year, any chance of Belmont residents wading into a new pool in the summer of 2015 is all but dead.
“I’m sorry to say that we will not have a pool next year,” said Anne Paulsen, chair of the Building Committee.
Conversations with the Belmont Health Department earlier this year said safety variances for the existing century-old Underwood Pool were approved by the town and OK’d by the state on the assumption a replacement facility would be up and running in 2015.
In an attempt to salvage the pool, the committee is moving to put the project – in a slightly different arrangement to satisfy state legal requirements – back out to bid for a second round in January. They will have their fingers crossed a new crop of builders will be eager to take the job within the budget.
“It’s a big bet, and I’m opposed to casinos,” said Paulsen.
“But we have been put into a corner, and we’re hoping to get out of the corner with some redesign and some assistance from the Board of Selectmen,” she said Tuesday night, Sept. 2 as the building committee met to prep for the joint meeting.
As for Rojas, he did not mince words placing a good proportion of the blame for this developmental “fail” square on the shoulders of the pool’s architect, Thomas Scarlata, principal at Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype, and the building committee’s project manager, Deborah Marai of Pinck & Co.
“There were only two people that are trained to have the experience necessary to [create a plan]; Scarlata and Pinck,” said Rojas, pointing specifically at the amount allocated to contingency costs – an amount in a project’s budget set aside to account for errors and omissions in the plans and to pay for unknown conditions such as an overheated market – as the prime culprit in the failure to secure a builder.
“I thought the contingency was way low, and if the contingency were higher, quite frankly, we’d be building a pool right now,” said Rojas, saying the pair’s financial assumptions were “well-below industry standards.”
According to committee documents, the construction contingency was $250,000 or about six percent of the total construction cost.
“Scarlata swore up and down that his contingency was high enough. I have no confidence in them anymore,” said Rojas.
“I hate to be correct on things like this,” Rojas said after the meeting. He said his experience, as a landscape architect, with state and federal projects of a similar size, requires 10 to 15 percent contingency “because they know there is a volatility in the bid environment.”
“[Scarlata] miscalculated the project. It was that simple. Just think if we had $600,000 in reserve. We would not be here,” said Rojas.
Yet Pinck’s Marai told the building committee Tuesday night the cost estimates, performed by two independent and veteran estimators, “were solid.”
In addition, the project did attract the interest of a bidder who was willing to work with the town’s numbers and two others “were really close,” said Marai.
Paulsen did express support for BH+A and Pinck, saying that while there are some who are disappointed with the contingency amount, “they have not said they haven’t done great work on this project.”
“We discussed the contingency with them ahead of time, and they thought they were quite responsible,” she said.
Just swimmingly until last week
Just a month earlier, it appeared to the Building Committee that the new municipal pool was proceeding swimmingly as Seaver Construction placed a bid of $3.84 million, well within the budget. And well below the two nearest bids, including one from New England Builders and Contractors, Inc. at $4.55 million.
Then within the past fortnight, the Woburn-based contractor suddenly withdrew its bid, stating it had made an error in its calculations, saying it had inadvertently left a “0” off – using $17,500 instead of $175,000 – for winterizing the site.
While correcting the mistake would allow Seaver to remain under budget, it told town officials that it would withdraw its bid rather than lower their profit margin.
Several in attendance Wednesday viewed Seaver’s claim as dubious, at best; the assumption is the company believed it was undercutting its profit margin severely after viewing the other bids that came in at approximately $4.6 million.
By Tuesday, Sept. 2, as the Building Committee gathered at Town Hall to prep for its meeting with the Selectmen, Paulsen informed the committee that she was “sorry we’re here with such grim news.”
The committee heard that the possibility of asking the November Special Town Meeting to approve an appropriation to make up the funding difference as well as creating a new set of design changes and calculations “is not realistic due to the tight time frame,” said Pinck’s Marai.
Marai presented three options to move forward; the committee rejected one – abandon the project and return the money to the town and CPA – out of hand.
The option to reduce the cost of the pool by the $400,000 gap was deemed so draconian that it would render the pool a shadow of the town resident’s expectation.
“The workarounds are just not worth it,” said Committee member Joel Mooney pointing out that even making significant cuts would result in added fees for new designs and consulting expenses.
The committee’s preferred alternative is to take a second bite of the apple by rejecting the current suitors, make just enough changes to the pool’s design to satisfy the state regulations requiring a second bid to be significantly different than the first and send the project out once again.
One major change being floated by Mooney is altering the number of pools from two to one, saving on pumps and filtration systems.
“But that is not a fait accompli,” said Paulsen, saying that is just a suggestion on reaching the state’s benchmark.
There is some belief that a January rebid will be more successful in ferreting out contractors who will be eager to work within a budget, said Marai. But, as stated at Tuesday’s meeting, the bidding process is unpredictable at the best of times.
“It could have been that the estimates were off because they weren’t anticipating a hot market or it’s just a bad time to bid. That’s the trouble. Once you go back out, you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen even if you make changes,” said Peter Castinino, director of the Department of Public Works.
“Darn this improved economy,” said Dash.
Selectman Mark Paolillo, who did not want to see the pool reduced in size and scope, suggested a public/private partnership be seriously explored to reduce the difference.
On Wednesday, the Selectmen were also eager to bring a wildcard into the mix, Town Meeting. The selectmen want the building committee to present a report at November’s Special Town Meeting and possibly to the general public this fall that includes scenario on changes, from minor alterations, significant cost reductions, and some which lie in the middle.
“If there are changes to the design, it must go to Town Meeting since they approved a specific design,” said Selectman Sami Baghdady.
As of now, the town can accept either of the two remaining bids until Sept. 26.
Belmont Town Administrator David Kale quipped that the town would welcome any resident making a grant for $400,000 to the project before the deadline.