Decrying a lack of transparency, finance officials on Tuesday night still approved a revisited bonding package of $3.9 million for fields upgrades now underway at New Canaan High School—$800,000 more in town funds than the project had been estimated to cost just five months ago.
While praising the volunteer New Canaan Athletic Foundation for its fundraising, members of the Board of Finance also voiced concerns that a town-appointed committee that includes NCAF members—ostensibly a group charged with helping to oversee the fields projects—this summer withheld critical information about a higher-than-expected bid for the work as well as other costs that drove up the price tag.
Instead of disclosing in late June to town funding bodies that some costs related to the fields projects had come in far higher than expected, committee members decided to change parts of the agreed-upon project on their own, spending public money in ways not vetted before the Board of Finance or Town Council, officials said.
Representatives of that committee—namely, Bob Spangler and Mike Benevento (it also includes Amy Bennett, Scott Werneburg and Nick Williams)—defended their decision by saying it was the best way to ensure the fields would be completed on time. They focused on getting the baseline fields and track work done and, as a result, the existing Water Tower turf field, re-graded and with a costly repair to its former slope, will be ready by the end of this month, while the second turf field and track will be done by mid-November, Spangler said.
Yet members of the Board of Finance—and Spangler normally sits on the appointed board as its vice chairman, though for the fields item he recused himself—said the committee could and should have communicated major changes immediately and directly.
“We approved a project with certain parameters to it and you guys on your own decided to eliminate some of the pieces of that project so you could fit it within the monies that you had,” Board of Finance member Chris Le Bris told them during the group’s regular meeting, held at Town Hall. “Now you are coming back to us and saying we have got to pay for these after-the-fact.”
The project, a partnership between the New Canaan Athletic Foundation and town, has three parts: a rebuilt turf field in front of the Waveny water towers, new turf field alongside it and completely redone NCHS track. In April, the price tag for those projects was thought to be $4.9 million, with the town committing $3.1 in bonding.
The Board of Finance toward the end of its three-hour meeting on Tuesday night voted unanimously to commit $3.9 million in bonding for what is now expected to cost $5.8 million, with the NCAF contributing privately raised funds to cover the balance. The Town Council must also approve the revisited bonding package—that group is scheduled to meet Sept. 27.
The additional $800,000—originally it was thought to be $1 million, but Spangler said removing “unsuitable” material found under the NCHS track would cost some $200,000 less than he’d estimated—is due mostly to correcting a 42-inch slope on the existing Water Tower turf field, paying a state-mandated prevailing wage to construction workers because the town is signing contracts for the various jobs and the unexpectedly high cost of fill.
Spangler, who had become involved with NCAF because his twin sons were track standouts at the high school, delivered a lengthy presentation to the finance board and touted the work of Rockland, Mass.-based R.A.D. Sports, a major contractor. The company, Spangler said, won an award in the last year for building the track at Providence College, where his sons are enrolled.
“So they really are very high-quality and do good work,” he said.
“When they came back—and we will talk about what caused that higher budget. They came back with a budget that came to us on the 23rd of June, which was first day that this board—these four plus Nick [Williams]—we were created that week. We met and then we were presented with a budget when we knew we had funds on hand from the Athletic Foundation of roughly $1,750,000 and then we had bond authorization for the three fields, we put that money together because it was in hand and we said, ‘What can we fund with those dollars in order to move this forward?’ And the reasons are listed here as to why we had to move it forward. You would have had the turf field, Water Tower turf field be—I’ll call it ‘decertified’—but not playable this fall unless you started on July 1 or thereabouts in order to get it playable and in this case it will be playable on Oct. 1. If there had been a decision to not move forward and go back through the boards at that time, we would have missed that window and in all likelihood we would have missed having a field to play on at all this fall. Similarly, again through Mike [Benevento]’s good work, the Athletic Foundation had raised now $1.9 million so there is $1.9 million in community dollars that are dedicated to this whole project in total. And that does not include baseball, so what Scott [Werneburg] is working on baseball is not in that number, and there is certainly as a community a desire to move this forward. They know the value of these fields. They know the value it means to home values and just the quality of life in town.”
According to Spangler, the committee’s changes included taking out some fencing, netting, goalposts and lighting.
Some finance board members said there’s no justifiable reason for not keeping informed the very town funding bodies that made the project possible.
“We feel a bit bamboozled,” finance board member Amy Murphy Carroll said.
“To me I think the frustration—and I know you guys are trying to get it done fast, I completely understand it—but a couple things. The town came up with the original money to do the track and estimated money to do the Water Tower and then based fundraising, the additional money to get you over the hurdle, which is great. But I think the big mistake we made was there should not be a shovel in the ground until we knew what we were getting and there was a full process because on June 23rd your realized you didn’t have enough, but you moved forward. And to me, it would have been better to know.”
Spangler said that he figured the NCAF might be able to do additional fundraising through the summer, and added that he’d raised more than $225,000 himself for the track specifically, “and to do it [Carroll’s] way would have required that $225,000 to go to Water Tower turf one.”
“To go to the town. All right? Look, there is $375,000 in private dollars to make it work. And that’s a town property. It has nothing to do with the New Canaan Athletic Foundation. So there is nothing that we did that was improper, in my opinion, other than trying to make something happen in the time we had to do it. Frankly, if we were going to have an August meeting, we would have done this in August.
Carroll responded: “But you did know there were issues. To me that is the issue. I think the work people are doing is amazing, but the fact is it was pitched to the town in such a way that if we put the half million dollars in, we are going to get huge bang for the buck: We are going to get a $250,000 savings. It’s great. And amazing that people came up with this money. It’s terrific. So I don’t know why it wasn’t like, ‘Guys, Water Tower—which is your field—is a mess.’ You should have told us.”
Spangler in introducing the cost overruns said: “Just as a reminder, part of the reason that this got advanced to where it is, is that we are in a position where—whether individuals in town are appreciative of this or not—all of our competing FCIAC schools that we think of truly as our peers have spent a lot of money on fields. Darien may be the extreme but certainly if you go to Staples and you see what those sites look like. You go to Wilton. You go to Stamford, Norwalk. All of them have multiple turf fields that they have invested in. So we view this whole exercise as an investment in our town.”
The Board of Finance voted 7-0 in favor of the resolution, with Chairman John Sheffield, Secretary Judy Neville, Neil Budnick, Carroll, Tom Schulte and Le Bris casting votes. Steve Boeschenstein also was present.
Board of Finance members Colleen Baldwin and Buzz Kanter were not in attendance.
Though they apparently knew more than two months ago about the higher-than-expected costs, the New Canaan Athletic Foundation officials on the committee as recently as two weeks ago were referring to the original price tag of $3.1 million for the fields projects at the high school.
Boeschenstein asked how it was possible that the original cost estimates varied so far from the actual bids.
“Because I think all of us are saying these are not little misses,” he said. “These are very large misses and how did that that come about? And some of it what you have described as being some of the primary drivers—for example the need to regrade Water Tower turf field one, the fact that there was a grading issue was a known issue and so I am just sort of baffled as to how we were so far off on some of these figures.”
Benevento responded that the need for the major cost—addressing the slope on Water Turf field one with regrading and a retaining wall—didn’t become clear until at least May. That’s when the Avon-based landscape architect firm that 10 years ago had created that turf field—Richter & Cegan—finally produced the computer files needed to finalize designs for the re-turfing. (It would have cost up to $75,000 for a fresh survey, Benevento said.)
“It was really a timing thing more than anything,” he said.
In an oddly detached moment, Spangler said that what had gone awry with the project’s funding was that “the public side gave too much leeway to the private side,” in part because the NCAF had delivered impressively on the re-turfing of Dunning Field one year ago.
“And because they [NCAF officials] are raising $1.9 million, they are doing the right things and they did so well on Dunning—I actually think that that’s a big key, is that they did so well at Dunning—these guys must know what they’re doing on turf fields,” he said.